Back formations

  • Mind Our English
  • Tuesday, 22 May 2012

WHICH came first, the chicken or the egg? The answer – in fact, any answer – is debatable, given that natural science is unlikely to yield clues to the answer.

Such, however, is not the case when we consider a word and its seeming derivative. Which came first can be answered from a study of their etymology – which brings us to the topic spelt out in the above title.

Back-formation is the formation of a word from an existing word in such a way that the latter seems to have been derived from the former – in the manner that I could call “a reverse mode”. A word so formed is also known as a back-formation.

A back-formation is revealed by the fact that the date of its first use is preceded by that of its apparent derivative (Chalker, S. & Weiner, E., 1998. Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar).

The said book gives examples of back-formations (with dates of first use abbreviated by a letter-and-number code the letters E, M, and L meaning “early”, “mid”, and late”; and the numbers indicating the century, e.g. “E19” meaning “1800-1829”, “M19” meaning “1830-1869”, and L19 meaning “1870-1899”), as follows: burgle (L19) from burglar (M16), caretake (L19) from caretaker (M19), housekeep (M19) from housekeeping (M16), liaise (E20) from liaison (M17), reminisce (E19 from reminiscence (L16), shoplift (E19) from shoplifting (L17).

Back-formations may arise in the following ways:

> By removing the prefix from the originating word, e.g. couth from uncouth, gruntled from disgruntled. Note that kempt may be deemed a back-formation from unkempt, but that there is no trepid as a conceivable back-formation from intrepid.

> By removing the derivational suffix from the originating word, e.g. analyse from analysis, cobble from cobbler, eponym from eponymous, euthanase from euthanasia, jell (a variant spelling of gel) from jelly, metamorphose from metamorphosis, partake from partaker, peddle from peddler, resurrect from resurrection, sculpt from sculptor, temp (meaning “a person working as an office worker on a temporary basis”, or “to work as such person”) from temporary, typewrite from typewriter, upholster from upholsterer, and vire from virement.

> By removing the apparent or notional suffix from the originating word, e.g. gyp (a verb) from gypsy, and sidle from sid(e)ling (equated with the adverb sidelong, the latter treated as if it were a present participle, ref. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, 1974).

It must be pointed out that a back-formation is different from a word derived by clipping an existing word in one of the following ways:

> Aphaeresis, i.e. clipping off the initial syllable(s) of an existing word, as in bus from omnibus, and plane from aeroplane).

> Syncope, i.e. clipping off the middle syllable(s) or phoneme(s) of an existing word, as in bosun from boatswain, and fo’c’s’le from forecastle).

> Apocope, i.e. clipping off the final syllable(s) from an existing word, as in exam from examination, fax from facsimile, gym from gymnasium, perk from perquisite, photo from photograph, tarmac from tarmacadam, and vocab from vocabulary.

The key difference between back-formation and apharesis, syncope or apocope is that no inflections, real or notional, are involved in the latter. (See the article Milngavie and ‘mogai’ in MOE, 16 May 2008.)

There is a rather interesting back-formation of modern origin (M20), viz. the verb destruct, which apparently is a back-formation not from the base verb destroy but from its abstract noun destruction.

This word seems to have become commonplace, following from the American TV series, Mission Impossible, with its signature conclusion to taped assignment message: “This tape will self–destruct in five seconds.”

The word destruct appears, of course, in American English dictionaries but apparently not in most British English ones – except in the recent Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 2004.

The verb stenog, no doubt a back-formation from stenographer, was used by the American writer O. Henry in his short story, Springtime A La Carte. It does not seem to exist in any dictionary, whether British or American.

Here are some other curious back-formations: administrate (even though the usual form is administer) from administration, curate from curator, spectate from spectator, and tweeze from tweezer. And then there is the spurious back-formation, surveil (from surveillance), which I once encountered in a newspaper report.

Closing notes

It will have been noted, from the above outline, that back-formation is a valid word-creating device in many instances. We could adopt it for one notable word commonly heard in Malaysian English, viz. the verb stinge, no doubt a back-formation from stingy, meaning “to be stingy” or, in standard English, “to stint”.

Hey, this Malaysian coinage, stinge, could even be conceived as a portmanteau word made up of stint + sting(e)y. What with its usefulness as a verb and its respectable etymology, the word stinge deserves to be in the dictionary!

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