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In etymology
Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time.For languages with a long written history, etymologists make use of texts in these languages and texts about the languages to gather knowledge about how words were used during...

, back-formation is the process of creating a new lexeme
A lexeme is an abstract unit of morphological analysis in linguistics, that roughly corresponds to a set of forms taken by a single word. For example, in the English language, run, runs, ran and running are forms of the same lexeme, conventionally written as RUN...

, usually by removing actual or supposed affix
An affix is a morpheme that is attached to a word stem to form a new word. Affixes may be derivational, like English -ness and pre-, or inflectional, like English plural -s and past tense -ed. They are bound morphemes by definition; prefixes and suffixes may be separable affixes...

es. The resulting neologism is called a back-formation, a term coined by James Murray
James Murray (lexicographer)
Sir James Augustus Henry Murray was a Scottish lexicographer and philologist. He was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1879 until his death.-Life and learning:...

 in 1889. (OED online first definition of 'back formation' is from the definition of to burgle, which was first published in 1889.)

Back-formation is different from clipping
Clipping (morphology)
In linguistics, clipping is the word formation process which consists in the reduction of a word to one of its parts . Clipping is also known as "truncation" or "shortening."...

 – back-formation may change the part of speech or the word's meaning, whereas clipping creates shortened words from longer words, but does not change the part of speech or the meaning of the word.

For example, the noun resurrection was borrowed from Latin, and the verb resurrect was then backformed hundreds of years later from it by removing the ion suffix. This segmentation of resurrection into resurrect + ion was possible because English had examples of Latinate words in the form of verb and verb+-ion pairs, such as opine/opinion. These became the pattern for many more such pairs, where a verb derived from a Latin supine stem and a noun ending in ion entered the language together, such as insert/insertion, project/projection, etc.

Back-formation may be similar to the reanalyses of folk etymologies when it rests on an erroneous understanding of the morphology of the longer word. For example, the singular noun asset is a back-formation from the plural assets. However, assets is originally not a plural; it is a loan-word from Anglo-Norman
Anglo-Norman language
Anglo-Norman is the name traditionally given to the kind of Old Norman used in England and to some extent elsewhere in the British Isles during the Anglo-Norman period....

 asetz (modern French
French language
French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the regions of Quebec and Acadia in Canada, and by various communities elsewhere. Second-language speakers of French are distributed throughout many parts...

 assez). The -s was reanalyzed as a plural suffix.

Back-formation in the English language

Many words came into English by this route: Pease was once a mass noun
Mass noun
In linguistics, a mass noun is a noun that refers to some entity as an undifferentiated unit rather than as something with discrete subsets. Non-count nouns are best identified by their syntactic properties, and especially in contrast with count nouns. The semantics of mass nouns are highly...

 but was reinterpreted as a plural
English plural
In the English language, nouns are inflected for grammatical number —that is, singular or plural. This article discusses the variety of ways in which English plurals are formed for nouns...

, leading to the back-formation pea. The noun statistic was likewise a back-formation from the field of study statistics
Statistics is the study of the collection, organization, analysis, and interpretation of data. It deals with all aspects of this, including the planning of data collection in terms of the design of surveys and experiments....

. In Britain, the verb burgle came into use in the 19th century as a back-formation from burglar (which can be compared to the North America
North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...

n verb burglarize formed by suffixation).

Other examples are:
  • Adjective "couth" from "uncouth"
  • Verb "edit" from "editor"
  • Singular "syrinx
    In classical mythology, Syrinx was a nymph and a follower of Artemis, known for her chastity. Pursued by the amorous Greek god Pan, she ran to the river's edge and asked for assistance from the river nymphs. In answer, she was transformed into hollow water reeds that made a haunting sound when...

    ", plural "syringes" (from Greek): new singular "syringe
    A syringe is a simple pump consisting of a plunger that fits tightly in a tube. The plunger can be pulled and pushed along inside a cylindrical tube , allowing the syringe to take in and expel a liquid or gas through an orifice at the open end of the tube...

    " formed
  • Singular "sastruga
    Sastrugi, or zastrugi are sharp irregular grooves or ridges formed on a snow surface by wind erosion and deposition, and found in polar and temperate snow regions. They differ from sand dunes in that the ridges are markedly parallel to the prevailing winds.Sastrugi are various surface...

    ", plural "sastrugi" (from Russian): new Latin-type singular "sastrugus" has been used sometimes
  • Verbs "euthanase" or "euthanize" from the noun "euthanasia".

Even though many English words are formed this way, new coinages may sound strange, and are often used for humorous effect. For example, gruntled (from disgruntled) would be considered a barbarism, and used only in humorous contexts. The comedian George Gobel
George Gobel
George Leslie Gobel was an American comedian and actor. He was best known as the star of his own weekly NBC television show, The George Gobel Show, which ran from 1954 to 1960 .-Early years:He was born George Leslie Goebel in Chicago, Illinois, His father, Hermann Goebel, was a...

 regularly used original back-formations in his humorous monologues. Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson
William McGuire "Bill" Bryson, OBE, is a best-selling American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and on science. Born an American, he was a resident of Britain for most of his adult life before moving back to the US in 1995...

 mused that the English language would be richer if we could call a tidy-haired person shevelled – as an opposite to dishevelled. In the American sitcom Scrubs
Scrubs (TV series)
Scrubs is an American medical comedy-drama television series created in 2001 by Bill Lawrence and produced by ABC Studios. The show follows the lives of several employees of the fictional Sacred Heart, a teaching hospital. It features fast-paced screenplay, slapstick, and surreal vignettes...

, the character Turk once said when replying to Dr. Cox, "I don't disdain you! It's quite the opposite – I dain you."

Back-formations frequently begin in colloquial use and only gradually become accepted. For example, enthuse (from enthusiasm) is gaining popularity, though it is still considered substandard by some today.

The immense celebrations in Britain at the news of the relief of the Siege of Mafeking
Siege of Mafeking
The Siege of Mafeking was the most famous British action in the Second Boer War. It took place at the town of Mafeking in South Africa over a period of 217 days, from October 1899 to May 1900, and turned Robert Baden-Powell, who went on to found the Scouting Movement, into a national hero...

 briefly created the verb to maffick, meaning to celebrate both extravagantly and publicly. "Maffick" is a back-formation from Mafeking, a place-name that was treated humorously as a gerund
In linguistics* As applied to English, it refers to the usage of a verb as a noun ....

 or participle
In linguistics, a participle is a word that shares some characteristics of both verbs and adjectives. It can be used in compound verb tenses or voices , or as a modifier...

. There are many other examples of back-formations in the English language.

See also

  • List of English back-formations
  • Folk etymology
  • Backronym
    A backronym or bacronym is a phrase constructed purposely, such that an acronym can be formed to a specific desired word. Backronyms may be invented with serious or humorous intent, or may be a type of false or folk etymology....

  • Retronym
    A retronym is a type of neologism that provides a new name for an object or concept to differentiate the original form or version of it from a more recent form or version. The original name is most often augmented with an adjective to account for later developments of the object or concept itself...

  • Juncture loss
  • Onomasiology
    Onomasiology is a branch of linguistics concerned with the question "how do you express X?" It is in fact most commonly understood as a branch of lexicology, the study of words .Onomasiology, as a part of lexicology, starts from a concept which is taken to be priorOnomasiology (from — to name,...

  • Unpaired word
    Unpaired word
    An unpaired word is one that, according to the usual rules of the language, would appear to have a related word but does not. Such words usually have a prefix or suffix that would imply that there is an antonym, with the prefix or suffix being absent or opposite.Unpaired words can be the result of...