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.