Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on April 13, 2009

I like to rollercoast!One book that we recently finished reading aloud was Nim’s Island, by Wendy Orr (now a minor motion picture from Walden Media). Doug and Adam had to stand by for a minute while I made a note of this passage near the end of the book:

…thought Alex as she roller-coasted from one [wave] to the next.

Something sounded funny about rollercoasted. I would have said rollercoastered, converting the noun rollercoaster into a verb (“verbing a noun”, as it’s sometimes known). Why didn’t Wendy Orr take that option?

Then I realized: It was another backformation. The steps in the history:

  1. Long before rollercoasters existed, the nouns roller and coaster were formed by suffixing the agentive suffix -er to the verbs roll and coast.
  2. When the devices now known as rollercoasters were invented, the noun rollercoaster was created via compounding: roller + coaster, meaning something that coasted on rollers. The OED’s earliest known attestation is from 1888.
  3. Next, the reanalysis, illustrated with the original structure on the left, and the reanalyzed structure on the right:
    Original structure

    Original structure

    The reanalyzed structure

    The reanalyzed structure

  4. This is where the actual backformation occurs, but you can’t tell, because [roller][coaster] sounds just like [rollercoast] [er].

  5. The backformation comes to light when a speaker retrieves the verb form that logically must exist, given the noun consisting of Verb+-er. In this case, it’s rollercoast. The OED’s earliest attestation is from 1973, and others from the past few years can be found in reference to markets, emotions, hypermiling, and moving time slots for troubled TV shows.

So if rollercoast is such a typical backformation, like a lot of the ones I’ve written about before, why did it stop me in mid-page and send me looking for a napkin to write it down on? My guess is that it’s because the noun rollercoaster is not an animate agent. A bartender is a person who bartends; a babysitter is a person who babysits; a rollercoaster is an object. To falsify this hypothesis, I now open the floor for other Noun+Verber compounds that denote objects, and that have yielded Noun+Verb backformations, and which sound as normal as peoplewatch or speed-read to me.

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8 Responses to “Rollercoasting”

  1. Glen said


  2. Wendy Orr said

    I didn’t analyse it all out like that, but I think you’re right – coaster is drawn from the noun coast, so I extrapolated that to rollercoaster even though it’s a noun.

    And (probably most importantly for me) rollercoastered is incredibly ugly to see or say!

    (I’d say pooperscooped too…)

    • Neal said

      Wendy: How nice of you to drop by! Thanks for the firsthand information on how you chose your words.

      Pooperscooper is a great example. If I were going to make a verb to mean “use a pooperscooper,” I’d probably just turn the noun pooperscooper into a verb, and indeed, that’s what some people do. I did some Googling and found that pooperscooper as a verb, although not terribly common, is out there. I found examples like “I pooperscoopered. Box is clean for now,” and “No doggy odor …, small less smelly stools, yard that never needs pooperscoopered even with 6 dogs….” But are there speakers who instead say pooperscoop? Again, though the verb isn’t very common, it’s out there: I found “I Pooperscooped the Yard to Smashing Pumpkins Tonight”; “i pooperscooped and changed out towels and washed bowls.” However (and this is where I’m on my honor to be honest), the verb pooperscoop is consistent with my hypothesis, since it strikes me as strange as rollercoast.

      As I was searching, it occurred to me that even the Noun+Verbing forms pooperscooping and rollercoasting sound strange to me — unlike forms like bartending and babysitting, which I take as normal Noun+Verbing compounds. I usually don’t call backformation until I see finite forms (i.e. forms in some tense) like bartends and babysat, but I’m starting to think that pooperscooping and rollercoasting are not formed by Noun+Verbing compounding, but by suffixation of a backformation that’s already taken place: pooperscoop+ing, rollercoast+ing. The reason, once again, is that pooperscoopers and rollercoasters are objects, not performers of some action. Consequently, I suspect that pooperscooping and rollercoasting didn’t start off with the verbal nouns scooping and coasting getting together with pooper and roller to specify particular kinds of scooping and coasting activities.

      With that in mind, I looked again at the OED citations, and found that rollercoasting is first attested in 1887 — basically the same time as the noun rollercoaster. Hmm. That doesn’t really support the backformation story, does it? On the other hand, this citation doesn’t seem to be talking about rollercoasters, literally or figuratively. Rather, rollercoast seems to refer to some kind of water activity: “Here are boating, fishing,.. roller-coasting..for boys.” The next attestation is from 1960, and does seem to refer to the kind of rapid up-and-down motion you get on a rollercoaster: “Ducks, however, are anatomically unfitted for such aerial roller coasting.” The last attestation given is from 1968, and like Wendy Orr’s sentence, compares riding up and down waves to riding on a roller coaster: “Roller coasting, one way of dropping and climbing on a wave.” So the backformation story could still be true.

      Meanwhile, I’ve thought of another Noun+Verber instrument that we could look for backformations of: screwdriver. This one’s especially nice, because drive is an irregular verb, and irregular past tenses like screwdrove will really stand out as backformations. There are a scant 20 hits on Google, including this lovely specimen: “He put his finger in his left ear, the one in which Simon yelled, and he screwdrove it partially in. Orange slime clung to his finger when he got it out.” No hits in CoCA. So far, it looks like Noun+Verber object-denoting compounds are resistant to backformation (although not backformation-proof).

  3. Glen said

    Some other possibilities:

    lawnmow(er) — allows search for lawnmown
    weedeat(er) — allows search for weedate
    leafblow(er) — allows search for leafblew

  4. Ingeborg S. Nordén said

    Glen: The trouble with dishwasher is that it can refer either to a person (hired to wash dishes) or to a machine (designed to wash them). I suspect that back-formations like dishwash would occur in discussions of the job, much as bartend and babysit do.

  5. The Ridger said

    Wow. I mentioned this in our in-house journal at work and was assailed by people saying it was impossible to make a verb out of roller coaster at all and we should just stop destroying the language. No one has said that here. Sigh… Your readers are all so reasonable.

  6. viola said

    Neal, the other day Gregg wanted to ride his scooter in the “court” (cul de sac) next to us. So, this is what his mum said (with this blog in the back of her head, quickly coming to the front). “Finish your homework, then you may go scooting…I mean scootering…er, ride your scooter.” Both boys were giggling with me. I think I like scootering best, if there is such a word.

  7. […] and books about barnyard animals when they were in preschool, to Henry Huggins, Harry Potter, and other YA stuff when they were older. Now that Doug and Adam are teenagers, I can at least say that I’ve […]

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