Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The Flapster

Posted by Neal on April 8, 2005

Another one for the backformation files…

We were having our monthly meeting with Adam’s therapists and therapy coordinator, and got to talking about Adam’s various undesirable behaviors (or in therapy-speak, just “behaviors”). Specifically, we were discussing arm-flapping, which is something that Adam has done since he was a baby. My wife and I even used to call him the Flapster sometimes, because of his pronounced habit of flapping his arms up and down when he was excited. The name didn’t seem so funny once he started being evaluated for autism.

Anyway, my wife’s and my point was that as far as stereotypical autistic behaviors go, arm-flapping is pretty mild–not like, say, injuring himself. And it isn’t like he does it all the time, obsessively; he only does it when he’s excited. But on the other hand, fitting in socially is probably going to be a struggle for Adam, and it’s not going to help if some kid in his third-grade class is saying, “Hey, look at me, I’m Adam,” and flapping his arms while everyone laughs. So we talked about how to approach this behavior, and one of the attendees said:

We want to make him aware of when he is arm-flapping.

I diligently wrote that down on my notepad, but didn’t tell the others at the table that I was thinking, “Aha! Arm-flapping the noun is now arm-flapping the present participle. It’s on its way to becoming a backformed verb!” But as with people-watching and underage drinking, the question is whether we’ll find verbal forms that aren’t just the same as the gerund. So, I wondered, could someone use just arm-flap as a verb? Scarcely had I had that thought when someone else at the table (no, not me) said:

It’s easy to predict when he’s going to arm-flap.

Well, there it is: arm-flap as a verb in an infinitive. Now I’ll be listening for it in finite forms, such as, “He arm-flaps,” or “He arm-flapped.” But I probably won’t hear it around here: We also decided at the meeting that we would use the term excited arms from now on.

One Response to “The Flapster”

  1. Anonymous said

    You’ve hit upon one of my pet peeves here. I’ve noticed a marked increase lately in usage of verbs like “fund raising” and “copy editing”, which just drive me nuts.

    “Jack was busy fund raising so he asked me to copy edit the press release.” Arrgh! It’s enough to make me cookie toss!

    By the way, I just came across your blog today, but I can already tell I’ll be spending a lot of time here. It’s a great opportunity to acquire reason and terminology for all of my linguistic irritations. (Maybe I should have studied linguistics instead of computer science.)

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