Take me back…

Nov 5, 2010 by

We tend to think that new words are made by ADDING to already existing words: take establish, add several morphemes to it and you get antidisestablishmentarianism! But words can also be created by taking out a morpheme (or rather what looks like a morpheme). This is called backformation. Curiously, the verb to back-form itself is a back-formation.

Here are a few examples of backformation from the recent postings of Wordsmith.

emote = to express emotion in an excessive or theatrical manner, as in “Doctors are trained to always look serious and never emote.” (Ninad Siddhaye; Doctors Self-Medicate With Theatre; Daily News & Analysis Mumbai, India; Oct 9, 2010.) This an obvious backformation from emotion. Despite a recent quote above, it has first been recorded in 1917.

aesthete or esthete = someone who has or affects high sensitivity to beauty, especially in art, as in “Alex is a secret aesthete, a slum-dwelling intellectual who finds redemption through Beethoven rather than the pumping dance beats down at the Korova milk bar.” (Neil Cooper; A Clockwork Orange, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow; The Herald, Glasgow, Scotland; Oct 18, 2010). This is a back-formation from aesthetic and its earliest recorded use is in 1881.

buttle = to do a butler’s work, as in “The top hotels in Saudi Arabia are staffed by foreign men — something I realized must be the case when my butler at the Al Faisaliah folded my underwear unprompted. If I were buttled by a Saudi, we’d probably be shuttled to Deera Square — or Chop Chop Square, as it’s better known — where the public beheadings occur.” (Maureen Dowd; A Girls’ Guide to Saudi Arabia; Vanity Fair, New York; Aug 2010.) This is a back-formation from butler. By the way, the word butler itself derives from Old French bouteillier (cup-bearer), from bouteille (bottle). That’s because originally, a butler was in charge of the wine. Note how — spelling notwithstanding — the cycle of derivation brought us back to where we started: to the bottle. The earliest recorded use of the verb to buttle is in 1867.


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