Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Let’s Problem-Solve

Posted by Neal on February 13, 2005

One of Adam’s therapists hates the verb problem-solve. She’s heard, “Let’s problem-solve” in meetings and training sessions, and it strikes her as the kind of thing you’d expect a dorky, buzzword-spewing Office Space-types boss to say. Even though I hadn’t heard anyone use this verb myself, I shared her revulsion toward it. But through my disgust, I still recognized one more example of my favorite morphological process, backformation. This one followed the same three-step pattern evident in people-watch and underage-drink, price-match and fence-sit, and (courtesy of CGEL, pp. 1637-38), babysit, headhunt, lipread, brainwash, daydream, househunt, housekeep, sleepwalk, spring-clean, breakdance, plea-bargain, and windsurf.

Productive as this kind of backformation is, it sometimes doesn’t seem to occur. I was making a list of compound nouns of form Noun+Verb+er, and most of them had been backformed into compound verbs. In addition to the above, I came up with troubleshoot, proofread, cherrypick, buttkiss, backstab, mindread, copyedit, bartend, and timekeep. But others didn’t sound, to my ear, like they could work as verbs: *maneat, *booklove, *fire-eat, *tightrope-walk, *party-poop, *flyswat, *moviewatch, *fortune-tell, *face-paint, *lion-tame, *booksell, *gameplay, *noisemake, *claim-jump, *bodysnatch.

I’ve done Google searches on a few of them, and found that some really didn’t seem to be out there–for example, *maneat and *party-poop. But others, to my surprise, were attested after all–for example, tightrope-walk, as in “It tightrope-walks the fantasy/SF dividing line” (link). I have a list of 5 or 6 possible influences on the likelihood of a Noun+Verb+er compound undergoing backformation, but don’t have enough data yet to see if any of them is significant. So…

Please send me your backformation sightings! And if you think of a Noun+Verb+er compound that just doesn’t work as a backformation for you, send me that, too. I don’t mean the ones you don’t like; Adam’s therapist and I don’t care for problem-solve, but we definitely recognize it as a verb. And even though people who use it may sound pompous and idiotic, they don’t sound like nonnative speakers of English. If I get enough responses, I’ll put up a page to summarize the data.

5 Responses to “Let’s Problem-Solve”

  1. David Kosofsky said

    Oddly, I’ve shared your fascination with that kind of backformation for quite a while.

    Here are a few that fit the pattern, I think: cheerlead , panhandle , typewrite , globetrot , potboil , spellbind.

    And on a sudden inspiration, I just did a google on `navelgaze’ and found, among a few other instantiations, this:

    “Ultimately, it feels more Right to me for sentience to be oriented towards the complexity found “outside” itself, i.e. to embrace the Unknown, rather than to navelgaze.”

    Also, turning off the SafeSearch filter and wading through a few hundred porn-sites, I managed to find several instances of `muffdive’ as a verb.

    And if you have any of those sound questionable, you’re welcome to… uh… `factcheck’ me.

    (Ah… sure enough… here’s one of several that goggle serves up:

    “It doesnt change the fact that we will still factcheck their butts in a few nanosecondsand post what we find.”)

    David Kosofsky kayaksky@yahoo.com

  2. Neal said

    Your ‘factcheck’ example is one that I discussed with Glen, but forgot while writing this post. It illustrates one of the sub-properties of these backformations I pay attention to: Can the direct-object slot of the verb that was emptied out when the original DO (e.g. ‘fact’) was put into the compound be refilled with another direct object (e.g., ‘your ass’)? When it can, the new DO is usually either a person, metonymically standing in for the original DO, as ‘your ass’ stands for ‘your facts’ here, or a more specific type of the original DO, esp. if the verb is being used figuratively (for example, the quotation I found with ‘tightrope walk’ in the posting).

  3. Estel said

    A linguistics student friend of mine used a backformation today that stood out to me. I think it was ‘data-collect’ (from, presumeably, ‘data collection’), but unfortunately I didn’t write it down and I’m not quite sure.

  4. Sometimes back-formated verbs don’t add much new information, even when the original phrase is able to take a direct object. (Your “fact-check your ass” example proves it: assuming that “your ass” is supposed to mean “you”, fact-checking a person is the same as checking his facts.) Similarly, I’ve seen “hero-worship” used transitively about specific people, even though it sounds redundant to me. Why not simply say that a fan “worships” his favorite star, as long as the context makes a figurative meaning clear enough?

  5. […] Neal Whitman in a blog posting and Ian Preston in a comment on my last posting in this blog have wondered why some […]

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