ENGLISCH/879: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (178) Back-formations (SB)


178 Does a commentator comment or commentate?

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

... Well, these days we say, "we listen to the radio". So the producers of radio programs refer to us as "listeners" which is correct. Now I wonder why the person in the radio program who speaks or the so called "speaker" is usually referred to as the "commentator", even thought all that he does is simply "commenting". A sports commentator comments on a soccer match or a riding competition or a race, so why is he not just a sports commentor? On the other hand, if one describes the profession of a commentator he generally uses the verb "to commentate" which seems absolutely wrong, or not? Can you help me? ...

Yours sincerely

Sergej R (Moscow, Russia)


Dear Mr R

English is a living language, it is by no means logically structured, but if you dig your heels into it, you will find the most fascinating aspects, specially in creating new words.

For the example you mentioned the verb "to comment" is the root of the noun "commentator", but a "(sports) commentator" does more than comment on something if he is really good; hence the need for a new verb "to commentate".

The process of word creation by removal of part of another word is called "back-formation". Back-formations (as above) often fill structural and semantic gaps.

Usually new English words are created from existing words by the addition of an affix (suffix or prefix). Add the suffix -y to the noun "hair", and you have the adjective "hairy". Removing the suffix again brings you back to the root form.

Many words, however, are formed by what seems to be a misunderstanding of this process. What looks like an affix is often part of the root of the word. For example, the word "lazy" to many people seems to behave just like "hairy", although historically speaking its -y is not a suffix but a part of the root of the word. Speakers at some point dropped what they took to be a -y ending to form the new verb "to laze" (to spend time lazily").

Here are some other "brand new" examples of back-formed verbs:

"to enthuse" - to speak enthusiastically - from "enthusiasm",

"to intuit" - to guess - from "intuition",

"to liaise" - to establish a relationship - from the French word "liaison", or

"to lech" - show excessive sexual desire - from "lecher".

The noun destruction is associated with the verb "to destroy". Yet, there is no verb "to self-destroy". So the verb that corresponds to self-destruction also had to be created or back-formed. Even if it sounds strange, the correct verb "to self-destruct" is quite colloquial by now.

Linguistic pedants generally fight back-formations until their usage is so widespread that they no longer "offend".


Miranda Gobbledygook

30 November 2009