Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Backformation’ Category

Getting Testy

Posted by Neal on March 2, 2008

I was flipping through the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly today, and came across an ad for a show on the Travel Channel called Bizarre Foods. I’d paste it in here if I could find it online, but the best I can get is this page on the Travel Channel website. In the middle (at least as of this writing) there is a looping video that begins with the caption “What is Andrew putting in his mouth?” A couple of pictures later you’ll see the ad that I saw in the magazine. The host of the show, Andrew Zimmern, is standing in front of a vending machine stocked with:

  • Lamb’s Head
  • Heart, All Beef
  • Fish Head, Complete With Eyeballs
  • Tarantula
  • Baby Mice
  • Curried Cockroaches
  • Bull Teste
  • Scorpion
  • Sour Cream and Onion flavored crickets
  • Cheddar Cheese flavored mealworms
  • Mexican Spice flavored mealworms
  • Bugs N Things
  • Worms & Flies
  • Eye Balls
  • Crispy Fish Head
  • Grubs
  • Mealworms

Did you spot the backformation in the list? Yes, that’s right, it was teste, formed by naively removing the -s from the plural testes to get the putative singular.

Often I have to remind myself that just because I can understand how some piece of the language has changed, it doesn’t mean I have to like it. The singular of testes is not teste. It’s testis, just like the singulars of crises, hypotheses, parentheses, and feces are crisis, hypothesis, parenthesis, and fecis.

Whoops. Scratch that last one. Back when the plural was still faeces in Latin, the singular was faex, but that form didn’t make it into English. If you just have to have a singular form of feces and don’t want to resort to suppletion by saying turd, backformation is your best bet: fece. According to Urban Dictionary, this singular form already exists.

Anyway, back to the Latin third-declension nouns ending in -is. I never hear people talking about one crise(e), or one hypothese(e), but I have heard some people refer to one parenthese(e), and now of course, one teste. I guess it’s to be expected, since parentheses, like testes, tend to come in twos, so that speakers are less likely to have heard the singular form and stored it in their memory when they need to use it.

Posted in Backformation, Food-related, Potty on, dudes! | 17 Comments »

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?

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Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Food-related, Gerunds and participles | 7 Comments »

A Right-Node Wrapping; a Backformation; and a Double Passive Gone Wrong

Posted by Neal on May 17, 2007

Here are a few recently observed examples of things that I’ve talked about on numerous other occasions.

First, here’s one more right-node wrapping (aka “Friends in Low Places” coordination), from Monday’s episode of Fresh Air, in which Terry Gross interviews Dr. Melinda Merck, author of book on forensic veterinary medicine. Terry asks about one case:

What was her story, like why was she collecting so many cats and then either killing or allowing them to die? (13.23-13.30)

And also on the subject of veterinary medicine, here’s a backformation I heard at the vet’s office earlier today:

…and here’s his rabie tag; you’ll need to put that on him…

Rabies is a borrowing from Latin; in Latin, it’s a fifth declension noun, and -es is the nominative singular ending, not a plural marker. But in English, rabies has occasionally been interpreted as a plural noun. If it’s a plural noun in your lexicon, then you’ll need to strip off the –s to make it singular in order to form compounds such as rabie tag and rabie shot.

Lastly, here’s an attempt at a double passive that Glen noticed and brought to my attention. It may be that sentences such as The marshmallows were forgotten to be brought (meaning, “Someone forgot to bring the marshmallows”) are ungrammatical in your English. They’re not grammatical in mine, though it would be convenient if they were. But even though they’re not grammatical for me, they don’t quite sound like errors, either. This, though, sounds like an error:

“A lot of guys I know, actually, have become radicalized, or initially took the first steps towards learning more about Islam and their way of life as a result of them being tried to being forced to marry someone they don’t want to marry,” Butt tells Simon. (link)

It would have been better (though still not quite grammatical for me) if he’d said being tried to be forced. As for tried to being, not only is it not in my grammar, I’d bet it’s not in Butt’s grammar either.

Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Double passives, Right-node wrapping ("Friends in Low Places" coordinations) | 2 Comments »

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)
  • 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?

Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Gerunds and participles | 6 Comments »


Posted by Neal on October 5, 2006

A thread on the Eggcorn Forum talks about a puzzling phrase some of the participants have seen: the war wages on. One poster speculates that the war-related verb wage is an eggcorn for rage; others think it’s an idiom blend of wage war and the war rages. Either of those is a possible explanation, but neither of them is the first one that occurred to me. The war rages on reminded me of a time about five years ago, when — oh, wait a minute… [harp music, wavy screen]

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Posted in Backformation, Verbal diathesis alternations | 8 Comments »

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

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Posted in Backformation | 6 Comments »

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.

Posted in Backformation | 1 Comment »

Let’s Problem-Solve

Posted by Neal on February 13, 2005

One of Adam’s therapists hates the verb problem-solve. She’s heard, “Let’s problem-solve” in meetings and training sessions, and it strikes her as the kind of thing you’d expect a dorky, buzzword-spewing Office Space-types boss to say. Even though I hadn’t heard anyone use this verb myself, I shared her revulsion toward it. But through my disgust, I still recognized one more example of my favorite morphological process, backformation. This one followed the same three-step pattern evident in people-watch and underage-drink, price-match and fence-sit, and (courtesy of CGEL, pp. 1637-38), babysit, headhunt, lipread, brainwash, daydream, househunt, housekeep, sleepwalk, spring-clean, breakdance, plea-bargain, and windsurf.

Productive as this kind of backformation is, it sometimes doesn’t seem to occur. I was making a list of compound nouns of form Noun+Verb+er, and most of them had been backformed into compound verbs. In addition to the above, I came up with troubleshoot, proofread, cherrypick, buttkiss, backstab, mindread, copyedit, bartend, and timekeep. But others didn’t sound, to my ear, like they could work as verbs: *maneat, *booklove, *fire-eat, *tightrope-walk, *party-poop, *flyswat, *moviewatch, *fortune-tell, *face-paint, *lion-tame, *booksell, *gameplay, *noisemake, *claim-jump, *bodysnatch.

I’ve done Google searches on a few of them, and found that some really didn’t seem to be out there–for example, *maneat and *party-poop. But others, to my surprise, were attested after all–for example, tightrope-walk, as in “It tightrope-walks the fantasy/SF dividing line” (link). I have a list of 5 or 6 possible influences on the likelihood of a Noun+Verb+er compound undergoing backformation, but don’t have enough data yet to see if any of them is significant. So…

Please send me your backformation sightings! And if you think of a Noun+Verb+er compound that just doesn’t work as a backformation for you, send me that, too. I don’t mean the ones you don’t like; Adam’s therapist and I don’t care for problem-solve, but we definitely recognize it as a verb. And even though people who use it may sound pompous and idiotic, they don’t sound like nonnative speakers of English. If I get enough responses, I’ll put up a page to summarize the data.

Posted in Backformation | 5 Comments »

Serial-Killing vs. Serially Killing

Posted by Neal on January 15, 2005

A few posts back, I wrote the following sentence: “And declaring that one’s 20s are when one should commence one’s serial killing is downright heinous!” I had to rewrite that sentence a couple of times, because at first I kept wanting to say:

…when one should start serial killing…

I kept rephrasing because on the one hand I didn’t like using the chunk serial-kill as a verb that way, but on the other hand the phrasing one should start killing serially or one should start serially killing didn’t sound quite right either. In turning serial-kill into a verb, I realized I was stumbling over the same kind of reanalysis-plus-backformation I’ve written about before. Specifically, I was starting out with the compound noun serial killer (or gerund serial killing), with the following structure:

[serial [kill er] ]

Next came the reanalysis:

[ [serial kill] er ]

And the final analogy for the true backformation part of the process:

kill : [kill]er :: ? : [[serial kill]er]

If this process was going on in my head, I figured it might be going on in other people’s heads, too. So I did some searches to find out if serial-kill as a verb was out there, and how it compared to serially kill or kill serially.

The phrase I looked for was serial killed, since killed is unambiguously a verbal form (either past tense or passive participle), while in serial kill, serial kills, and serial killing, the form of kill was ambiguous between a verb and a noun. I got about 886 Google hits for the phrase. A lot of them seemed to be spellchecker-induced errors, with (I’m guessing) serial killes replaced by serial killed. But there were a number of clear cases of backformed serial-kill, such as these:

… and now the two of you are sitting pretty with a couple of unsuspecting well-behaved drifters sitting silently in the backseat just begging to be serial killed … (link)

The people that are serial killed now are usually guilty. (link)

TheJock, commenting on my away message – which when I go out with someone always instructs the reader to avenge my death should I dissapear or get serial killed … (link)

In addition to the above passive participial forms, I got a few past-tense ones:

Marlena, a big character from back in the day, had apparently gone crazy and serial killed a bunch of other main characters. (link)

Lee Wuornos being a prostitute who serial-killed about seven of her johns back in the 80s and … (link)

Hey, do you like the “Six Degrees of Rigor Mortis” game where you try to figure out how many people Bill & Hillary Clinton serial-killed? (link)

I got about 361 Google hits for serially killed, both participial and finite:

The following eMail we received reports the death of three perfectly good Zip drives being serially killed by a single killer cartridge: (link)

The British and worldwide societal structure decided to demonize Dennis, after it was revealed that he had serially killed numerous young men. (link)

For the first time in US history, a woman stands accused of having serially killed six adult male motorists, (link)

Interestingly, serially killed was often used in a strictly compositional sense, referring to killings that took place sequentially, not done by a serial killer. Most of these were from lab reports, as in:

The mice were then serially killed at the scheduled times to examine the development of hepatocellular carcinoma… (link)

But not all of them were. Here is a sentence talking about Osama bin Laden, certainly a killer, but not anyone’s idea of a serial killer:

we’re dealing with an individual who has led a military effort against the United States for ten years and has serially killed a significant … (link)

I didn’t find any of these usages for serial-killed, though of course I can’t say they’re not out there.

So using the backformed serial-killed seems to carry the extra meaning that a killing was not just one in a series, but that it was done by a serial killer. I can think of another reason that someone might use the backformed serial-killed rather than serially killed. Compare these sentences:

?He serially killed Kim.
He serial-killed Kim.
?Kim was serially killed.
Kim was serial-killed.

Serially killed sounds better when you’re talking about more than one victim. It doesn’t make sense to talk about a series of things when there’s only one member in the list. But what if you’re talking about a single victim (such as Kim) who was done in by a serial killer? Serial-killed seems to capture that meaning.

Posted in Backformation, Compound words, Gerunds and participles | 2 Comments »


Posted by Neal on November 30, 2004

Doug and Adam were eager to go to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, because their cousins were going to be there, and they would be bringing their two puppies, Jake and Elwood. As soon as we got there, Doug and Adam ran down to Grandma’s basement for a visit with J. and E. While they were doing that, their aunt described the drive up, including J. and E.’s vomiting in the back seat of the car, and the fact that they’d been able to fit only one of their two cages in the car. But maybe for the drive back, she said, they could “contrapt” something that would fit.

I’ve heard of contraptions before, but this was the first time I’d ever heard the corresponding verb–the activity one engages in whose end product is a contraption. It makes senses, of course: when you promote someone, it’s a promotion; when you convict someone, it’s a conviction; so naturally, a contraption must be the result of someone contrapting something, right? But still, I’d never heard the verb contrapt, and after checking my dictionary, I see that my suspicions were correct: The noun contraption came first (with the verb contrive tentatively listed as its source). As of 1973, contrapt wasn’t listed.

So the noun came first, and the verb was created after the fact by stripping off the –tion suffix, eh? Well, hot damn, it’s another specimen of my favorite morphological process, backformation. This case is simpler than the ones I talked about in earlier posts. Those all involved compounding followed by a reanalysis before the actual backformation step; here, it’s backformation pure and simple.

Like other backformations, this one seems so inevitable. So much so that I felt sure my sister-in-law couldn’t have been the first person to do it. A Google search reveals that it’s attested out there, though not very frequent. And it seems to be a recent invention, too: Alan Slotkin’s CV lists a 1993 article which I haven’t read, but whose title suggests that he hadn’t actually heard anyone use contrapt. First of all, he asterisks contrapt, which is linguists’ notation for either “ungrammatical” or (in this case) “never been encountered in the wild.” He also uses future in the title: “A Back(-to-the-Future)-formation: *to contrapt.” Man, that’s almost as bad as my backformation-puns.

Posted in Backformation | 5 Comments »