Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Implicit Backformation?

Posted by Neal on February 21, 2008

I think it was the E-E-A sequence that caught my eye. I was sitting at a cafeteria table, looking at the stand-up card with a picture of a slice of pie on it. I’d pushed it out of the way with my tray when I sat down, but now that I’d been eating for a few minutes, my eye was drawn back to the card. Paying closer attention now, I saw that it wasn’t just an advertisement for the place’s desserts; it was an encouragement to get their desserts to go. It said:

Homeeat a homemade dessert.

Homeeat? There is no entry for homeeat or home eat in my Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, and I have yet to find any attestations of it online. The meaning was clear enough: to eat at home. But how had they formed the word?

Well, clearly, it’s a compound, right? A compound consisting of a noun (home) and a verb (eat).

Not necessarily. In fact, that possibility is unlikely. Compound verbs are much less common than other kinds of compounds, and it’s rarer still for a compound verb to be formed by putting a noun together with a verb. Most compound verbs are formed with a preposition, e.g. overeat, outperform. If you have a noun-verb compound, chances are it didn’t arise via compounding, but by backformation, like the examples I’ve written about before. For example, there was people-watch, which comes from stripping off the -ing suffix of the noun-noun compound people-watching and interpreting what’s left as a verb. CGEL (p. 1660) mentions a couple that seem to have been formed directly by putting a noun together with a verb — speed-read and hand-wash — but even with these it is careful not to rule out backformation.

So, I wondered, is home-eat (sorry, I have to have the hyphen; it’s too hard to read otherwise) a backformation just like most of the other apparent noun-verb compounds? If so, then that means somewhere out there speakers have been using the noun-gerund compound home-eating, or the noun-participle compound home-eaten, or maybe even the noun-noun compound home-eater. And that somewhere along the way, some speakers reanalyzed the structure on the left as the structure on the right, leaving home-eat free and clear for use as a verb:

syntax_tree.png

Sitting there, I didn’t think I’d ever heard anyone talk about home-eaters or home-eating, or home-eaten meals. Instead, it seemed clear that home-eat was created for the purpose of the sign, playing off the compound adjective homemade. (By the way, if I were telling this story ten years ago, you can bet I’d be all over the falsity of homemade, and asking who exactly lived at the cafeteria and made homemade desserts there. But I just don’t have the energy to do that anymore.) In other words, the writers had taken the adjective homemade, turned it into the verb homemake by backformation, and then swapped out the make for eat. So home-eat was like a backformation after all, but without an actual compound noun or adjective with eat in it as its source. Kind of an implicit backformation. Now that was something I’d never seen before.

Of course, as regular readers of linguistics blogs know, just because you haven’t heard something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (I’ve checked and made sure: All three of those negations are needed.) Now that I’ve had a chance to Google home-eaten, I’ve found a very small (but still non-zero) number of attestations, such as:

The Vietnamese home- eaten meal is mostly boiled or steamed. (link)

The same goes for home-eater:

I’m a home eater myself — but then, with my wife doing the cooking it’s like being in a restaurant anyway. (link)

That word exists alongside out-of-home eater, which is synonymous with the also-existing restaurant-eater, and does not mean someone who eats you out of house and home. Of course, there’s also home-eater in the sense of something that eats homes, and I found one page referring to termites this way. And what about home-eating? It’s out there, too. For lots of laughs, check out this article on home-eating on a website promoting home-schooling.

So I don’t need to invoke a new and exotic type of word-formation and call it implicit backformation after all. Home-eat could just be an ordinary backformation like almost all other noun-verb compounds. My neato implicit-backformation hypothesis could still be right, but in light of the evidence so far, it doesn’t respect Occam’s Razor. There is, however, one difference in the meaning of the verb home-eat on the tabletop card and the home-eating, etc.: The writers I’ve found who talk about home-eating always mean eating food at home that is literally homemade. Assuming they would even accept home-eat as a verb, they would likely consider it a semantic perversion to use it to mean eating something at home that you bought at a restaurant.

7 Responses to “Implicit Backformation?”

  1. The Ridger said

    Ah, but doesn’t “home-made” here just mean “from scratch” as opposed to Mrs Paul … wait a minute, she makes fish. Who makes those nice big pies in the freezer section?

  2. Ran said

    Given what we know of advertising, I’d say your implicit backformation theory does meet Occam’s Razor; it seems to me a lesser assumption that the advertiser, trying to be clever, would come up with this bit of wordplay, than that the advertiser (1) had heard the forms “home-eating” and so on, (2) backformed them naturally, and (3) trying to be clever, would use it together with “homemade.”

    @The Ridger: Sara Lee?

  3. Viola said

    @The Ridger and @Ran:
    Mrs. Smith’s or Marie Calendar’s. From what I understand, these two ladies’ pies do not hold a candle to Mrs. Whitman’s home-made apple pies.
    Neal:
    No need to apologize for inserting the hyphen in “home-eat.” For a brief moment, my eyes were actually crossed while reading it without the hyphen.🙂
    The home-school article on home-eating–HILARIOUS.

  4. The Ridger said

    Mrs Smith (if that is indeed her name) is the one I was thinkig of. Marie’s pies aren’t nearly as good.

  5. Neal said

    Ridger:
    Yes, I’ve come to accept homemade as meaning merely “from scratch” — though somehow that label still doesn’t seem right when the making has been done in a factory. I’m sure Homemade brand ice cream really has been homemade in that sense, as the makers combine real milk, sugar, carrageenan, guar gum and artificial flavors, instead of, say, buying lots of freeze-dried camping ice cream and mass-reconstituting it.

  6. Viola said

    (Sigh) I’ve almost come to the conclusion when we purchase food off the shelf or from the freezer that we’re actually eating astronaut food. So if we are what we eat, shouldn’t we be as pickled (shelflife-wise) as the food itself? As soon as the ground is thawed enough, the tiller’s comin’ out and we’re plantin’ our garden–herbs and all–back to the good ol’ days of good clean food.

  7. […] in Literal-Minded: 2/21/08 Implicit backformation (here) on rabie tag for rabies […]

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