New 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.Email this Post