Thursday, 29 December 2011

More on coo-girls, folk etymology and back-formations

Last week’s article ended like this: “Coo-girl from kugel is a good modern example of a folk-etymological (re)construction. Would it be a fair guess that the student who wrote coo-girl, not knowing it was the incorrect spelling, did so because in her mind a lady who (stereotypically) fitted that description spoke in a way that could be described as cooing?”

You may have spotted the fact that that paragraph itself illustrates folk etymology twice over! First we had the student spelling something according to her speculative interpretation or reconstruction of the word kugel which she had heard somewhere, and then there was my wholly speculative suggestion about what might have been going through her mind as she decided to write it that way.

And this is precisely the stuff folk etymology is made of: unfounded “conclusions” drawn (consciously or unconsciously) from unresearched and unconfirmed “data” about the possible origin of a word or phrase.

Now something more about back-formations.

In “Kudos, pease and thanks” (15 December) we saw that pea was a so-called back-formation resulting from an erroneous supposition that pease was a plural form and that pea was its corresponding singular forms I wrote about back-formations in the context of folk etymology because essentially the same process is at work here as in the case of words like coo-girl, namely the mis(re)construction, out of ignorance, of a word or phrase not well known to the language user(s) concerned.

The writer I quoted last week from talks about some other back-formations. Regarding emote, for example, he explains that it was “mistakenly assumed to be the root of emotion, which is logical enough since -tion is a common suffix in English. But in this case, the word dropped whole from French (émotion) into English, so that derivation is erroneous.” He then also mentions a few other words in English that were “mistakenly created by back-formation”: liaise, enthuse, laze and evanesce.

Some back-formations may be relatively easy to spot once one is aware of the phenomenon. (Or let me rather put that another way: some words may be relatively easy to suspect of being back-formations, subject to confirmation after the initial conjecture!) Other back-formations are far less transparent, and we might be surprised to discover that some words which we’ve simply taken for granted as always having “been there” as basic forms are, in fact, back-formations. A quick little exercise for you in this regard: consider and look up the words sculpt and predate in relation to sculptor and predator respectively and see what you come up with. Language is so interesting!

* This will be the last article in the “Write thinking” series until further notice, not because I have run out of things to write about (not by a long chalk!), but simply because of a need to reprioritise projects in the next few weeks or months. I will definitely be back with more sometime. In the meantime, thank you very much to many of you who have indicated your appreciation of my notes on language over the past few months – I do not take your responses for granted. May I wish everyone a productive, prosperous and highly satisfying 2012.

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