Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

They Went Sightseeing, and I Underage Drank

Posted by Neal on April 21, 2007

It’s been a while since I’ve had anything to write about backformation, but Russell at Noncompositional reminded me of it with this post about the verb sightsee, backformed from the Noun+Gerund compound sightseeing. He observes that this verb can’t do all the things that a fully evolved verb can. Sure, you can say, “They’re sightseeing,” but can you have sightsee on its own, with no suffix, as in I like to sightsee, or We sightsee every weekend? Some people can, but how about the word in a finite form with a suffix (other than -ing) on it? Something like He sightsees when he travels? Not so good. And forget about the past-tense: wiith see having an irregular past-tense, sightsaw is just about impossible. Russell points to this posting by languagehat, where it is established that went sightseeing is the way to go when the past tense is needed.

The discussion reminded me of a post I wrote in 2004 about the verb underage drink, backformed from underage drinking/drinker. At the time, when I Googled the phrase underage drank, I got only 50-some hits. Now, though, that search pulls up at least 100 hits, including gems such as:

  • My parents knew when I underage drank. (link)
  • I SMOKED WEED AND UNDERAGE DRANK IN HIGH SCHOOL (link)
  • It’s not the store’s fault, the guy who bought the beer was of age, no one underage drank from the keg, the keg was self-serve and no one but the drunk is responsible. (link)

Underage drank is still very rare, but seems to be on the increase. It wins out over gone/went underage drinking, which gets only about 30 hits. Assuming underage drink can function as a verb in your grammar, how would you pit it into the past tense?

6 Responses to “They Went Sightseeing, and I Underage Drank”

  1. dave said

    I don’t think ‘underage drink’ is acceptable in my version of english (southern UK). i’d probably go for ‘I did underage drinking’, or ‘I drank underage’. In fact, I think that the third google example you give is actually similar to my second suggestion – they’re saying that noone who was underage drank from the keg.

  2. Neal said

    Oh, you’re right! I should have parsed it that way.

  3. Glen said

    “…it is established that went sightseeing is the way to go when the past tense is needed.”

    I do that with the present tense as well: I would say We go sightseeing every weekend rather than We sightsee every weekend.

    Also, this word may be an eggcorn for me, because I had always thought the proper spelling should be sitesee, because sites are the things you see. I assumed sightsee was an error, or perhaps a correct spelling that started as an error and become correct through frequent use.

  4. Glen said

    I guess that’s a folk etymology, not an eggcorn.

  5. Rachel Klippenstein said

    I just came across an apparent backformation that made me think of you:
    self-accompanied as a past tense.

    “I gather he sings what is known as Tin Pan Alley, though I don’t know if those are historical tunes or original to him; he self-accompanied with a banjo for the opening act.”
    (From here.)

  6. […] nouns of the form [Noun]+[Verb]+er/ing often give rise to backformed verbs, such as rollercoast, sightsee, arm flap, problem solve, serial kill, fence sit, and peoplewatch and underage […]

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