Sunday, April 19, 2009

To and fro of word appropriation
Article from Brisbane's Courier Mail.

Roly Sussex
April 18, 2009

WHEN we borrow a word from another language we often let it sit for a while.
If it looks and feels foreign we don't do much to change it.
Faux pas (French "false step") is still "foe par" in pronunciation. It hasn't given rise to faux pas-ish, which looks strange. Vis-a-vis (French, "face-to-face") is also frozen.
But maladroit "clumsy", also from French, feels now more like one of our own words: it has spawned maladroitly and maladroitness.
By adding English suffixes (endings) we confirm our ownership.

Sometimes, however, we borrow a word and, when it has settled down, we mark our possession by taking away a suffix.
This creates a new word, one which often didn't exist in the language where we pillaged our new English addition.
"Editor" is like this. In French it meant, and still means, "publisher". We borrowed it around 1650 and shifted the meaning.
But then we went a step further. We chopped off the "-or" to produce a new verb "to edit". The rationale for "edit" is: it has "-or" like "sailor". We have both "sail" and "sailor", so by analogy we should have "edit" and "editor".

This process is called "back-formation". English, being a voraciously borrowing language, does it copiously. Back-formations change the part of speech. They often, but not always, involve creating a verb to match a borrowed noun. Some of them, like "to curate", sound a little contrived. Others are bona fide paid-up members of everyday English usage:

television: to televise
bulldozer: to bulldoze
curator: to curate
emotion: to emote
peddler: peddle
tazer: taze ("Don't taze me, bro.")
spectator: to spectate
liaison: to liaise
burglar: burgle
buttler: to buttle
Some make new nouns, for instance from adjectives which look as if they come from the nouns, whereas the reverse is true:
rorty "boisterous": rort (a great Australian word not yet followed elsewhere)
gloomy: gloom

Or we can use a verb and an associated phrase like "burnt by the sun" to make "sunburnt" and then, by back formation, the noun and a new verb, "sunburn".
Once we have the new word, we can do other typically English things to it, like making yet a further noun from the infant verb: "I still have some edits to do on this piece."
Or destruction: destruct (button), then auto-destruct.
Often, as with "haze", we forget entirely that it isn't the basic form of the word, but derived by back-formation.
Analogy is a powerful force: we create words which we think should exist. Analogy is the rationale: if a word forms a noun in "-or", say, the verb behind it should also exist. If it doesn't, we create it, consistent with the rules of English word-formation, though in violation of its history.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists no fewer than 755 back-formations.

1 comment:

keri h said...

Errrm, "buttler"? "To buttle"???