Watch my Backformation

Someone I know once told me,

  1. I like to peoplewatch.”

In May 2003, a gossip column had a quotation from Ashton Kutcher, concerning a party that George W. Bush’s daughters had attended at his place in 2001. Kutcher said,

  1. The Bushes were underage drinking at my house.

These two sentences caught my ear because of the verbs in them: peoplewatch and underage drink. These verbs are a particular variety of one of my favorite word-formation processes, backformation. Backformation is the reverse of adding an affix (i.e prefix or suffix) to a word (or if we’re not just talking about English, doing any kind of derivational operation on a word, whether it’s affixing, or repeating a portion of the word, or changing the vowels, etc.). Instead of the affixed word coming into existence after the original word, the affixed one is the original word, and the un-affixed version comes later.

For example, consider first an ordinary case of derivation: the adjective sexual. This is derived from the noun sex by adding the suffix –ual. Now consider the adjective homosexual, and complete the following old-style SAT analogy:

sex : sexual :: ? : homosexual

The answer is homosex, a well-attested noun meaning “sexual activity between members of the same sex.” The adjective came first, not the noun, though in a hundred years I’m guessing most English speakers will assume it was the other way around. (Just as they do with the verb edit, which actually entered the language after the noun editor.)

Examples (1) and (2) above are a special case of backformation that I’ve started to notice. They are backformations resulting from this sequence of events:

First, a noun form of the verb, i.e. gerund or agentive noun, is combined with some other word to make a compound word. The other word could be a noun that would ordinarily appear as the verb’s direct object, as in peoplewatching (gerund) or peoplewatcher (agentive). Or the other word could be an adjective modifying the noun, as in underage drinker.

Second, a reanalysis of the compound word occurs, such that [A [B C]] is reparsed as [[A B] C]. Continuing with the earlier examples, [people [watch er]] becomes [[people watch] er], and [underage [drinker]] becomes [[underage drink] er].

Third, the actual backformation itself:

watch : watcher :: ? : [[people watch] er]
drink : drinker :: ? : [[underage drink] er]

And now we end up with the new verbs people-watch and underage drink, as evidenced by the fact that we see them in infinitives (to peoplewatch) and finite verb forms (that is, verb forms with a tense, such as past progressive, as in were underage drinking). Sweet!

My enthusiasm was not shared when I brought these examples up in an introductory linguistics class I taught last year. One student dared to dispute my claim that underage drink was being used as a verb in (2). Yeah, yeah, she said, it’s appearing in a finite verb form all right, but the thing is, in English gerunds and progressive participles sound the same! Ashton Kutcher might have said, “They were underage drinking” just because he’s familiar with the term “underage drinking” and doesn’t know or care about the difference between a gerund and a participle. He would never, this student argued, say something like “She underage drinks all the time.” In short, underage drink may be a verb in a technical sense, but it’s not a verb with full rights and privileges of ordinary verbs. She had a good point.

So just now I did a couple of Google searches to see what I found for simple past and 3rd person singular present forms of underage drink and peoplewatch. I found fewer than 50 hits for underage drank, underage drinks, and peoplewatched; zero for peoplewatches. (Compare this to 190K for underage drinking and 450K for peoplewatching.) For some people, at least, these new verbs are starting to do more of the things that verbs can do, but these words have a long way to go before they totally fit in.

My final thoughts on these backformations is that there is an even more special subclass of them: those whose source verb is transitive. Peoplewatch is an example. Aside from seeing these verbs in infinitives or in tensed forms, I’ve found one more thing that (I claim) immediately gives away that a backformation has occurred: It has to have happened if a new direct object can appear after the verb, taking the place that used to be reserved for the direct object that now appears in front. Here are a couple of examples:

  1. We can fact-check your ass! (heard in several places)
  2. We don’t just cherrypick the best ones. (heard on a radio commercial)

I hypothesize that any time you see this kind of competing direct-object structure, you will find that the backformed verb has achieved full verb status, and can be used with all tense/person/number suffixes.

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