Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on November 30, 2004

Doug and Adam were eager to go to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, because their cousins were going to be there, and they would be bringing their two puppies, Jake and Elwood. As soon as we got there, Doug and Adam ran down to Grandma’s basement for a visit with J. and E. While they were doing that, their aunt described the drive up, including J. and E.’s vomiting in the back seat of the car, and the fact that they’d been able to fit only one of their two cages in the car. But maybe for the drive back, she said, they could “contrapt” something that would fit.

I’ve heard of contraptions before, but this was the first time I’d ever heard the corresponding verb–the activity one engages in whose end product is a contraption. It makes senses, of course: when you promote someone, it’s a promotion; when you convict someone, it’s a conviction; so naturally, a contraption must be the result of someone contrapting something, right? But still, I’d never heard the verb contrapt, and after checking my dictionary, I see that my suspicions were correct: The noun contraption came first (with the verb contrive tentatively listed as its source). As of 1973, contrapt wasn’t listed.

So the noun came first, and the verb was created after the fact by stripping off the –tion suffix, eh? Well, hot damn, it’s another specimen of my favorite morphological process, backformation. This case is simpler than the ones I talked about in earlier posts. Those all involved compounding followed by a reanalysis before the actual backformation step; here, it’s backformation pure and simple.

Like other backformations, this one seems so inevitable. So much so that I felt sure my sister-in-law couldn’t have been the first person to do it. A Google search reveals that it’s attested out there, though not very frequent. And it seems to be a recent invention, too: Alan Slotkin’s CV lists a 1993 article which I haven’t read, but whose title suggests that he hadn’t actually heard anyone use contrapt. First of all, he asterisks contrapt, which is linguists’ notation for either “ungrammatical” or (in this case) “never been encountered in the wild.” He also uses future in the title: “A Back(-to-the-Future)-formation: *to contrapt.” Man, that’s almost as bad as my backformation-puns.


5 Responses to “Contrapted”

  1. Anonymous said

    Here I go claptrapping again…

    According to the dictionary claptrap is both a noun and an adj., so why not a verb?

    The origin of the word according to Websters is an attempt to win applause (makes sense, a trap for claps).

    Now it means pretensious nonsense=trash.

    “claptrap sentiment” means sentiment of the cheap and showy variety.

    When I saw The Sound of Music as a youth, I thought it was a touching movie with fine musical numbers. Now that I’m older and denser, I think I would have trouble sitting through it again. Apropo of claptrap, I envision the final scene of the movie when the announcer calls out, “and now the von Claptrap family singers.”

    I’m all claptrapped out now, so that ought to make you happy.

  2. Neal said

    Sure, you could use ‘claptrap’ as a verb: I want to claptrap now; will you claptrap with me?, etc. That morphological process is known as conversion (or zero-derivation), since you just start using the word as the new part of speech without any affixes or changes in pronunciation or anything. It’s nice, but still not as much fun as backformation.

  3. Anonymous: Cheap and showy sentiment is an easy way for actors to get applause from the right audience; pretentious talk may also impress some people into applauding a speaker. The change in meaning seems logical enough to me…

    Neal: Although I’ve personally never heard “claptrap” as a verb, that shift seems much like the use of “bulls**t” as a verb. Someone who “claptraps” is uttering/using claptrap, obviously enough.

  4. Alan Beard said

    Hey, I’ve just read ‘contrapted’ in a Lorrie Moore novel (A Gate at the Stairs) and wasn’t sure if she’d made it up, so googled it, and came across this article. Still not sure if it’s legitimate, but sounds so right here:

    Mosquitos with tiger striped bodies and the feathery beards of an iris, their wings and legs the dun wisps of an unbarbered boy, their spindly legs the tendrils of an orchid, the blades of a gnome’s sleigh…Their awfulness and flight obsessed me, concentrated my revulsion: suspended like mobiles, or diving like jets, they were sinisterly contrapted; they craved color; they were caught in the saddest animal script there was. Once I whacked Robert’s back, seeing a giant one there, and killed five, all bloody beneath his shirt.

    Love to know what you think.

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