linguistics and lexicography Love English

Surveilling a new back formation

© Brand X PicturesNew words are constantly entering English, though only some are destined to stick around or become standard. We might imagine them being made from scratch, and some, such as blurb and quark, were coined this way – by Gelett Burgess and James Joyce, respectively. Far more often, though, new words emerge through modification of existing words.

This happens in several ways. At Macmillan Dictionary Blog we’ve looked at verbing and nouning, portmanteaus, acronyms, apocope, and aphaeresis. While affixation is especially common, less well known is its reverse: back formation. One example of this is a new addition to Macmillan Dictionary: surveil (also surveille).

Surveil might be unfamiliar to some readers, but in context it’s instantly recognizable as a verb ‘back formed’ from the familiar noun surveillance. Back formation, also backformation or back-formation, is when a new word is made by removing an affix, in this case the suffix -ance. Thus television gave us televise; diagnosis, diagnose; editor, edit; burglar, burgle; liaison, liaise; execution, execute; resurrection, resurrect; and so on. The verb back-form is itself a back formation.

Back formation typically turns nouns into verbs, as in the examples above, but other possibilities occur: singular nouns may arise from plural nouns – or from what look or sound like plural nouns: statistic from statistics, pea from pease. Back formation describes the process but also refers to the new word itself.

Some back formations are deliberately comical. Jack Winter’s essay ‘How I Met My Wife’ features such novelties as chalant and petuous (from nonchalant and impetuous); here, the removal of prefixes rather than the usual suffixes gives them a playful feel. Other back formations are obviously redundant, such as conversate, cohabitate, and evolute. The use of these and similar words is likely to invite criticism and complaint – sometimes unfounded, as with orientate. Certain others, such as enthuse, occupy a grey area of acceptability.

More often, back formations are developed because there’s a need for them. Surveil is a case in point. English imported surveillance from French over two centuries ago; the French verb it came from, surveiller, would not work directly in English because it doesn’t suit the borrowing language’s morphological patterns. So to make a verb from surveillance, English speakers back-formed surveil and surveille. (Inflected forms usually double the l: surveilled, surveilling.)

You might find that it’s impossible to identify a back formation just by looking at it. I’d never have guessed that edit came from editor or that donate came from donation, and not the other way around, if I hadn’t read about them or looked them up. That’s the only way to know for sure.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • Marc: I think that use of fail arose not through back-formation (i.e., removing the suffix from failure) but through conversion, aka zero derivation: by converting the verb fail into an interjection and then a noun.

  • Stan:
    I think you’re right. I thought about it after I hit send, the expression still has an awkward feel to it, and I still wrinkle my nose when I see it. I’ve noticed what may be an indication of a trend to collapse nouns in particular. My son will often say that he was driving on Easton “Ave” instdead of using the whole word. This may simply be part of current slang-usage (he’s just twenty), but it could be indicative of a move to compress nouns from their Norman-French and Latin origins, more in keeping with the Germanic propensity for monosyllabic words. Of course, one or two examples don’t make a trend.

  • I’m writing an article on the most recent English loanwords entered in the Italian Language and I wonder if the word ‘blog’ (web-log) is originally a blended word that later on back formed.Let me know your opinion, Marilena

  • Marilena – I expect Stan will respond too, but I don’t think “blog” is a back-formation. Maybe closer to apocope (see Stan’s earlier post on this). Your proposed article on loan-words sounds great – maybe we could tempt you to talk about this on our blog too? I’m sure it would be of great interest to everyone.

  • Marc: “Ave” is an interesting usage. I’d be tempted to associate it with the fashion for abbreviation (legend→ledge, etc.) common among young people, which I discussed on my own blog. Adjectival amaze is another example of this.

    Marilena: Your article sounds very interesting; you could add a link here if it’s published online, or follow up on Michael’s suggestion. Regarding your query: in an earlier post about the word blog I quoted Kerry Maxwell saying it has “dipped its toe into just about every word formation process” — clipping, blending, derivation, compounding, and conversion. However, like Michael, I don’t think back formation was involved.

  • Thanks Michael and Stan for replying me. I assume your viewpoints are right. As for Michael’s suggestion, I admit that I am tempted and, I must add, I would be extremely pleased to submit my article to your attention. Let’s stay tuned!Happy Easter and Best Regards to you, Marilena

  • What a great post, Stan. I have a fellow word-nerd who gleefully uses the word “ept” to mean capable, claiming that it should be the opposite of “inept.” I’ve not seen or heard it elsewhere, but I’ve picked it up and occasionally use it myself.

  • Virginia: I don’t know if ept will ever become standard, but it does enjoy occasional (generally comical) use. I just learned that the “ept” in inept comes from Latin aptus, which also led to apt – not quite the opposite of inept, but you can see the connection.

    Mark: That makes sense, and it saves two syllables. Though whether it will spread is less certain.

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