Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Backformation Roundup

Posted by Neal on March 13, 2006

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about my favorite morphological process, which longtime readers may remember is backformation. Strangely enough, not everyone finds backformation so interesting. In fact, students in introductory linguistics classes sometimes find it confusing and frustrating. A typical question: Why is the first pair of words below an example of suffixation, while the very similar-looking second pair is an example of backformation?

  • calculate, calculation
  • orientate, orientation

It’s kind of like that scene in the original Star Trek, where Spock addresses two identical fem-bots, saying to one, “I love you,” then turning to the other and saying, “I hate you.” They keep trying to make sense of Spock’s arbitrary distinction, eventually malfunctioning and allowing Kirk and Spock to make their escape.

I explain that the difference is that of the first pair, calculate entered the language first, and calculation was created from it by adding a suffix, but of the second pair, it was actually orientation that entered the language first, and orientate was created by undoing the suffixation. That usually clears it up, as evidence by their response: “Well how were we supposed to know that? How are we supposed to know on a test which word came first?” Then follows the reassuring that all necessary information will be provided on the exam, though some of them don’t quite believe it.

The backformations that usually catch my eye (or ear) are those in which a noun or adjective form of a verb (i.e. a gerund or participle) is compounded by putting a noun or adjective in front of it, and then the -ing or -ed is stripped off to yield a new verb. For example, in performance-enhancing drugs, we have a noun+adjective compound (performance plus enhancing), and the whole thing functions as an adjective, modifying drugs. But in Ruben Bolling’s Tom the Dancing Bug comic strip of Dec. 18, 2004, one character tells another:

You’ve been performance-enhancing!

Sure, it still sounds the same, but now performance-enhancing is the progressive form of a verb, not an adjective modifying something else. In the future, look out for finite verb forms, such as He performance-enhanced illegally, None of our players performance-enhance, or Everyone performance-enhances!

Other examples of this kind of backformation where a noun glued to the beginning of the verb takes the place of a direct object after the verb:

  • Adam’s therapist mentioned that he “emotion-shared” at some point.
  • “The decision puts Limbaugh back near square one and is likely to reinvigorate the criminal investigation into whether he ‘doctor-shopped.'” (“Justices won’t hear Limbaugh appeal,” Palm Beach Post 29 Apr. 2005)
  • From a Bionicle comic in a Lego magazine: “We came, we scouted, we all-conquered.”

Sometimes, the place where the direct object would have been is filled in again, with a more specific noun:

  • The union won’t let Kroger “cost-cut our health-care benefits or our jobs,” [UFCW president Becky] Berroyer said. (From a Columbus Dispatch story of Nov. 7, 2005)

Other times, the direct object is something that belongs to or is somehow associated with the noun that’s been stuck in front of the verb:

  • matchmake him
  • quality-control your documentation

Other times, it’s not a direct object that gets put into the verbal compound, but an adjective or noun with an adverbial function, indicating how the action is conducted, as in silent reading or high-speed transfer. I’ve seen or heard both of these turned into verbs via backformation:

  • I want you to silent-read this story now, before we read it aloud. (Teacher at Doug and Adam’s school)
  • You can also high speed transfer (dub) your favorite programmes to DVD-RAM or DVD-R…. (from the manual for a DVD recorder)

I’ve been wondering for some time what makes a verbal compound more likely to undergo backformation like this, but I think I need a lot more data before I can say anything that’s not just circular reasoning.

6 Responses to “Backformation Roundup”

  1. Big Ben said

    Do I get to be the first person to commentate at the new blog?
    Did you encounter any problems importating all the posts from blogger?

    Seriously, the wordpressed blog looks much nicer, and it’s great to finally have categories.

  2. Neal said

    Thanks for the commentation, Big Ben; it’s good to hear from you again!

    To answer your question: No problem in importing the posts from Blogger, except one: links to other Blogger posts still link back to Blogger. I’m gradually hand-altering them to link to the parallel WordPress posts. As for categories, they’re the main reason I switched over: I got tired of manually adding to my index every couple of months. Too bad the category structure is only allowed to be a semilattice, since I’d like for some categories to have multiple parent categories.

  3. Sophie said

    Excuse, a layman here, but “orientate” is now an acceptable word? Does this mean that “orientated” is as correct as “oriented.” I can see how back formation from “orientation” would lead to the disappearance of “oriented” and so my question is has this already happened? Also, is the status of “orientated” different if different English speaking countries? I am from the United States and learned that this is not a word but have heard it recently from Australians I have met.

  4. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Your “matchmake” example reminded me of a joke I’d read several years ago:

    A girl taking home economics in high school was sent to detention for adjusting her hair and make-up during class. She explained to the principal: “Before I can homemake, I have to find someone with whom.”

    [My initial reaction: “Forget home ec, lady; you must be flunking English!”]

  5. Rachel said

    “Stage-manage” is another one. “I stage-managed that show.”

  6. Neal said

    Sophie: My impression (without having researched this question) is that for some people, ‘orientate’ is unremarkable, just the obvious verbal form of ‘orientation.’ For those who learn the verb ‘orient’ first, ‘orientate’ is not acceptable, since you generally don’t create a new word where an equivalent one exists (barring effects due to taboo, etc.).Still others may be aware of both words, and not know that one of them is stigmatized. Some of these speakers may have the words as synonyms; others are likely to perceive/create some semantic difference between the words so that in a few generations, both words will be deemed legit, each with its own meaning. For a similar story about ‘recur’ and its backformed relative ‘recurse’, see the comments on this post on Invented Usage.

    Ingeborg: Yeah, that girl’s English needs help. It should be, “I have to find someone with whom TO.”

    Rachel: Thanks for the example!

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