The Top 10: back-formations
We are familiar with modern words ironically derived from existing ones, such as burgle, buttle and emote, but there are hundreds of normal words that started life backwards
I came across the first four of these in Rebecca Gowers’s book Horrible Words, which, despite its title, is a wonderful book.
1. Greed came from greedy, which preceded it by 600 years. Similarly, laze came from lazy.
2. Diplomat is a back-formation from diplomatic, itself formed from diploma, an official document folded in two, from Greek diplo, twofold.
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3. Enthuse, adapted from enthusiasm in 1827. Also one of Steven Fogel’s 27 nominations.
4. Diagnose, from diagnosis, was first used in 1861.
5. Reminisce. “In the 1950s my grammar school English teacher was adamant that there was no such verb,” says Jen Parry. It used to be regarded as a wrong back-formation from reminiscence.
6. Grovel, from grovelling, in turn from the obsolete groof, grufe “the face or front”, from Old Norse á grúfu, “face downwards”, plus the suffix -ling. Thanks to Henry Peacock. Similarly, sidle comes from sid[e]ling.
7. Injure, from injury. From Steven Fogel and Henry Peacock.
8. Scavenge, from scavenger, originally scavager, from Anglo-Norman French scawage, tax, in turn from Old Northern French escauwer, inspect, from Flemish scauwen, to show. Nominated by Rich Greenhill and Henry Peacock.
9. Edit, from editor. Thanks to Graham Kirby. “Reinforced,” according to the Oxford dictionary, by the French back-formation editer, from edition.
10. Legislate, from legislation. Steven Fogel again.
Some time ago, Veronica Lee came across a recording of Noel Coward on the radio talking about a “frivol” and asked for more. This list isn’t quite what she was asking for, but I think it’s interesting. Some nominations were received for humorous back-formations such as gruntled, which was used by PG Wodehouse, but that is actually in a different category, of lost positives.
Next week: songs by bands about being in a band, such as “The Worst Band in the World” by 10cc: “Never seen the van – leave it to the roadies. Never met the roadies – leave ’em in the van.”
Coming soon: widely accepted aphorisms that are untrue, such as: “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.”
Your suggestions please, and ideas for future Top 10s, to me on Twitter, or by email to email@example.com
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