Back Formations and Neologisms

by Gabrielle C. Durham

I like playing Scrabble, and part of the reason is creating new words. That and the smack talk. I played a game with the swain of the day decades ago, and he challenged my word, which was not in and of itself surprising. As you may recall, if you lose a challenge, you lose a turn. With stakes so stupendously high, you mount a vigorous defense. I ended up losing the battle (and probably won the war) and thought no more of it. The ex-boyfriend brought it up a few years ago; I think he has put that on-the-spot coinage next to a picture of me in his mind. It is a shame that the word he will forever associate with me is “beardful.”

My linguistic brain coined this neologism by merging noun + common suffix “ful,” as in words such as “youthful,” “fearful,” and “handful,” to create an adjective. Easy and legit, right?

A neologism is a new word or a new way of using a word and is not yet commonly accepted; it may never be mass-accepted, and it may stay new for decades. To survive its infancy, it needs to identify a durable, meaningful concept. The word or usage has to be relevant.

One form of a neologism is a back formation, which is typically shortening an existing word and changing the part of speech. An example is the verb “burgle” from the noun “burglar.” “Burglar” has been with us for centuries as a noun, and someone – let’s blame Shakespeare – realized that a verb would make the world shimmer that much more brightly. Thus was “burgle” begat.

In some cases, the part of the word, or affix, that is removed in a back formation is not a standard suffix, such as “er” or “or” to mean a person who, but is actually part of the root word. Huh? “Orator,” for example, is not originally a person who orates, and a “lecher” is not a person who leches, until more recent vintage anyway. The verbs “orate” and “lech” are the new coinages based on the nouns that already existed.

Other glorious examples of back formation are these newishly minted verbs: “diagnose,” “televise,” “babysit,” “enthuse,” “evanesce,” and “laze.” These words fill a need, at least to some, although there is a tendency for business-speak to take over this delightful phenomenon and nauseate the more sensitive among us. Does “aggress” really need to exist? No, I aver. There are purists who detest diagnose, but to this layperson, it deserves its place in our lexicon.

Some more dubious back formations are variations on words that already exist and serve admirably, making these formulations useless. For example, “administrate” serves no higher purpose than “administer” does. The same goes for “cohabitate” to stand in for “cohabit,” “conversate” for “converse,” “orientate” for “orient,” or “remediate” for “remedy.” These words are superfluous and overly Latinate. Off with their capita!

You can always create more words in English, although they may not be the most legitimately pedigreed. Russian is actually similar because of the use of so many suffixes. We’ve all encountered the canonical Russian novel that leaves us wondering if there are indeed 3,000 characters because of the language’s naming conventions. How does Sergei Feodorovich Bastanin become Seryozhichka? It happens in parts, with the base name of Ser- and then appending three different diminutives: “yozh,” “ich,” and “ka.” The string of diminutives is quite contrived, so chances are you will not hear such a construction, but it is a possibility.

If you are a sort who likes to play with words, in Scrabble or otherwise, you may enjoy this list of little lexical snacks.

Why does any of this matter? Ah, the hill of beans argument. Ultimately, my thinking, playing, and writing on neologisms and back formation do not amount to much in the world beyond. But these activities, however diverting or inutile, are how new words genesize. (That could totally be a word.)