The hypocrisy of hating back-formations
Does the verb incent make you grind your teeth? Can you cope with enthuse? Does spectate rankle? There are plenty of purported language purists in the world with a professed distaste for back-formations; those who would much rather provide with an incentive, express enthusiasm, and be a spectator. Do they have a point?
What is a back-formation?
First things first: a back-formation is ‘a word that is formed from an existing word which looks as though it is a derivative, typically by removal of a suffix’. So, for instance, you might expect spectator to derive from the initially-hypothetical word spectate because other pairs of words follow a similar pattern: dictator/dictate, creator/create, and so forth. The invention of a back-formation often fills a perceived gap in the language, where ‘normal’ rules don’t seem to work, much in the way that a child will invent hurted or bited.
Should you avoid back-formations? (And could you if you wanted to?)
But do we hate back-formations as much as we might think? While some still might cause winces – liaise as a back-formation from liaison is similarly disparaged – others have become unnoticed building-blocks of the English language. Who now would complain about edit (a back-formation from editor), isolate (from isolation), or complicit (from complicity)? Even the common garden pea started out as a back-formation from pease, which was interpreted as a plural; pease is now archaic except in the name of the British dish pease pudding (‘split peas boiled with onion and carrot and mashed to a pulp’). Similarly, cherry is a back-formation that came about because the Old Northern French cherise was interpreted as a plural.
The further we look, the more we discover that a whole host of common words started life as back-formations. A far from exhaustive list includes automate, choreograph, classify, curate, demarcate, diagnose, donate, emote, escalate, glitz, legislate, mix, ramshackle, reminisce, scavenge, sculpt, seraph, sleaze, teleport. Some have become even more frequently heard than the word from which they came: partake, for instance, is rather more common than partaker, and grovel is found far more often than the obsolete adverb grovelling.
Burgle or burglarize?
Brits sometimes smile at the word burglarize, which can seem clumsy to non-American ears, but the American burglarize and the British burgle actually both date to the 1870s, according to their current respective Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entries. That is, burgle was itself a back-formation from the noun burglar (attested in the mid-16th century), which had gone some centuries with only to commit a burglary on hand as its concomitant verb form. Indeed, the word back-formation was actually coined by OED editor James Murray when creating his dictionary, and the earliest known use comes from his entry for burgle.
Back-formations that didn’t stick
While English has a long history of back-formation, there are certainly some back-formations in the OED that haven’t taken hold of the popular imagination. There is no obvious reason why isolate should have become commonplace while locomote has not – both back-formations date to the 19th century – but it is undeniably the case. Similarly, you would be unlikely to discover many uses of manuscribe in your day-to-day life, perhaps owing to the ready availability of write. But cose – ‘to make oneself cosy’, found in the mid-19th century – would appear to fill a gap in the language, but has still gained little popularity. Similarly, seldom will you ever hear hypocrise (to practise hypocrisy), dowd (a dowdy person), or redund (to make redundant).
Why do some become intrinsic parts of the English language and some fall by the wayside? As usual, it’s impossible to identify a single reason and possible to identify dozens. While we can’t predict which back-formations will crop up, die away, or last the distance, we do want to whisper a word of caution to anybody throwing up their hands that incent and enthuse are in Oxford Dictionaries: sorry to manipulate or gobsmack, and we certainly won’t legislate or back-stab, but many of the words we partake of are back-formations, and we’re all at least a little complicit.