Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Mad About Backformations

Posted by Neal on August 18, 2004

Doug is midway through a week of day camp with an outfit that calls itself Mad Science. They made a sundial and a sextant (huh, huh, I said sextant) the first day, and paper airplanes yesterday. They also play games (e.g., “Planet Red Rover”) in the park where they’re holding the camp, and serve a snack. Doug seems to be having fun, and all in all I’d say the summer day camp version of Mad Science seems to be a bit better run than the one-hour-a-week five-week sessions that Doug and I went to during the winter. There, 5 or 6 things were crammed into the one hour, with hardly enough time to finish one activity before the teacher was doing the next one. And boy, I really had to clamp down hard on my tongue during the session on insects when the teacher mixed up the terms thorax and abdomen and never corrected herself!

But anyway, on the way home from one of the Mad Science classes, Doug asked me, “Why do they call it mad science, anyway?” So I first had to explain the concept of a mad scientist, explaining the appropriate meaning of mad and trying to think of an example. I went with the evil Dr. Robotnik from the Sonic cartoons and Doug got the idea. (He’s also known as Eggman, and what’s up with that? Is it because he looks kind of like a walrus?) Then I had to go from mad scientist to mad science, comparing it to scientist and science, and experienced the quick thrill of pleasure that comes from identifying a backformation.

First, there’s the reanalysis step. To show it, I need to break the word scientist up into the root science and the suffix ist, and just let it be understood that when the two get together, it comes out as scientist. The reanalysis can now be illustrated like this:

[mad [science+ist]] –> [[mad science]+ist]

Next, there’s the process of analogy:

science : [science+ist] :: X : [[mad science]+ist]

And finally, the backformation proper, where we solve for X and get the backformed noun mad science. (Aside: Isn’t it neat that the verb backformed in the last sentence is itself a backformation?)

The crucial bit is that of the terms mad science and mad scientist, it was mad scientist that came first, not mad science. Now if I heard people talking about weird scientists, meaning not a scientist who was weird, but rather a practitioner of weird science, that would be an ordinary forward formation (aka derivation), since as we Gen-Xers all know, weird science came first!

2 Responses to “Mad About Backformations”

  1. Anton said

    The series was better than the feature.

  2. […] I was stumbling over the same kind of reanalysis-plus-backformation I’ve written about before. Specifically, I was starting out with the compound noun serial killer (or gerund serial killing), […]

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