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The term is also often used by non-experts to include what, in the field of linguistics, is more accurately called a retronym.

The term back formation is used in the linguistics community as well. This statement isn't entirely accurate—Trevor Caira 14:08, 29 July 2005 (UTC)

Ummm... Do I detect cross purposes? Whoever wrote the first comment seems to have suggested rightly that retronym and back-formation have different meanings that are frequently confused. As Trevor says, both are used in linguistics. However the distinction is subtle and the two meanings, though different are not mutually exclusive. JonRichfield (talk) 09:45, 11 May 2013 (UTC)


Fowler says both came from French "orienter", short in C18, long in C19.

Sometimes there is a forward-formation (Note: That is an example of a back-formation from "back-formation.") and then a back-formation: The verb "orient" produced the noun "orientation" that produced the verb "orientate" as a back-formation that means the same thing as "orient" and is now considered acceptable in British English (though it is still considered a mistake in American English).

Lousy article, folks.[edit]

Many of the "back-formations" listed here are not true back formations at all. I shall add a few of my own to the list at the bottom....

"Utopia" discussion problematic...[edit]

I'm not so sure of the accuracy of this section. "Utopia" is not genuinely Ancient Greek -- it was coined by Sir Thomas More in the 17th century. Although it's true that it would literally translate as "nowhere," as More described it, it was an idealized fantasy-land (akin to the more English expression "never-never-land"). So to use the word "utopia" or "utopian" to describe a perfect place, or perfection, isn't really due to reinterpretation of the word, or back-formation in particular. It's using the word in the sense with which it was intended.

I'm inclined to remove the paragraph. Any objections?

(No objections; deleted.) Ex0pos 17:07, 1 November 2005 (UTC)

Isolate, donate[edit]

The examples donation and execution run counter to the definition of back-formation that is given in the first paragraph. The affix -tion was NOT "spuriously supposed" in these examples. The article needs to explain the difference between spuriously supposed affixes (like the holic in alcoholic) and legitimately supposed affixes (like the tion in donation and execution).-- Anon

The picture seems a little muddy here, particularly for isolate. Are we sure that isolate, as in "an isolate of ..." is back-formed from isolation and not derived from isolatum or some similar Latin form? Does this apply to any latinate verb ending in -ate, e.g., relate, inflate, gyrate, state (back-formed from station??) ...? What about similar forms with no corresponding -ation, e.g., date, rebate, debate, plate ...? If these are not back-formations, what's special about donate and isolate? -Dmh 16:09, 17 January 2006 (UTC)

These verbs (e.g. relate) are all formed from supine stems: the equivalent verb formed from the present stem is refer. Not all verbs of this kind end in "-ate", for example act, refract, resurrect, pollute and many others are also supine stem verbs. Such verbs are now an absolutely regular feature of the English language, and they can't all be back-formations or even mistakes: in many cases it simply wouldn't be possible to coin a verb from the present stem (*done, *isole, *age, *refringe, *resurge, *pollue?). Some, such as impact as a verb, clearly are neologisms (there is already a perfectly good present stem verb impinge), but the point of a back-formation is that it reconstructs a "root" that never existed.
I am not sure how or when English came to have all these supine stem verbs in the first place: neither French nor any of the other Romance languages has anything equivalent. My impression is that many date from the Tudor period, when there was a conscious attempt to Latinize the language. They could have been coined through several different routes.
1. In some cases, a noun or adjective derived from the Latin past participle already existed as a word in English, for example "act". This would then have been made into the verb "to act" (as in to take action) as so many nouns are, without any need to posit back-formation.
2. In other cases, the pre-existing word was a noun of agency (which, in Latin, is always formed from the supine stem): examples are "actor" and "editor". From these we get, as back-formations, "act" in its other sense (of what we do on the stage) and "edit", for the things an actor or an editor does.
3. The question of "-tion" words is more complicated. These too, in Latin, are invariably formed from the supine and not the present stem. (The only exceptions in English are "reflection" and "connection"; and there is a strong argument for bringing these into line with the general rule by spelling them with an x.) So cutting off the "-ion" to form an imaginary present stem may be a back-formation of sorts, but there is no class of "-ion" words genuinely formed from a present stem to act as a model for this. "Resurrect", as mentioned in the first paragraph of the article, is therefore not a particularly good example. (When people mis-spell the names of certain dogs as "Alsation" and "Dalmation" I often wonder how one alsates or dalmates :-) )
4. Finally, in some cases Latin itself coined a verb from the supine stem of another verb, to denote intensity or repetition. For example canere is the verb for to sing, with supine cantum, but then there is the secondary verb cantare, to chant. (In the same way, when we lend money we make a loan, but some people use a secondary verb to loan. Similarly the liquid we use to marinate something in is a marinade, but cookery writers in magazines have coined the wholly unnecessary secondary verb to marinade.) So English, in coining all these supine stem verbs, may simply be taking an established but rare usage in Latin and expanding it to the nth degree.
My feeling is that, while a few verbs may have crept into English by one or other of these routes, once they were established they soon came to be regarded as instances of a rule that any Latin verb may be turned into English by using the supine stem. A verb like "resonate" (as a substitute for the earlier present-stem verb "resound") is not a back-formation from a noun *"resonăte", "resonator" or "resonation", or derived from an imaginary Latin intensive *resonatare, but simply the standard way of rendering resonare into English.
I would therefore be in favour of removing "donate" and "isolate" as examples, but leaving "edit". Any objections?-- Sir Myles na Gopaleen (the da) 12:20, 16 May 2006 (UTC)

Not sure about this. Though, as you say, most -tion and -ssion words are formed from supines, there are some -ion words formed from present stems, e.g. "opinion" and "region". "Resurrection"-->"resurrect", and some others, may well have been formed on the analogy of these. That said, your 1. is the most likely route. In Elizabethan times it was a rule that (Latinate) verbs ending with t and d sounds did not add "-ed" to form a past participle. Thus an adjective like "deject" (meaning downcast) could then be interpreted as the past participle of a verb "to deject"; and then when the Elizabethan taboo had disappeared, it could generate a secondary past participle "dejected". I am not at all sure about your 4. "Cantare" (and "saltare") are probably shortened frequentatives, formed by adding "-itare" to the present stem (like "volitare", to flutter), rather than by adding "are" to the supine stem. Can any real Latin scholar comment?

I think your "Elizabethan rule" puts the cart before the horse. It was only after verbs like "deject" had already evolved that the adjective could be interpreted as a past participle and the "rule" established. As with -tion words, there are no genuine examples of the "rule" to act as the model for the back-formed examples. --Sir Myles na Gopaleen (the da) 10:32, 13 June 2006 (UTC)

In some cases, the very same form has one historic and one back-formed use. For example, "process" (as in processed peas or data processing) versus "procéss" (walk in procession); "obsess" (this obsesses me) versus "obsess" (don't obsess about it).


"Cherry" is not a back-formation of "cherise". It is the normal evolution of a word taken over from one language into another language, in this case in fact several languages have been influential: Late Latin "ceresia" via Old North French "cherise" into the ultimate English "cherry", through several intermediate forms. It is a natural development that happens to most words. A back-formation is a neologism created from an already existing original form of a word which by having affixes added takes on a new inflection. Dieter Simon 00:47, 19 March 2006 (UTC)

Sure it is. This example is mentioned in morphology textbooks. This "natural evolution/development" is exactly backformation. The French form was borrowed as cherise, cheris with a final [z] sound. This [z] was subsequently reanalyzed as a plural suffix. Backformation. Compare the words pea, shay/chay (from French chaise/chaize), riches (from French richeise/richesce/richece/richesse). – ishwar  (speak) 02:40, 21 September 2007 (UTC)

-istics/-istry and -ist[edit]

Are comparative linguist and organic chemist considered back-formation? I think they are better described as subtraction, but I'm not sure. When you reanalyze editor as edit and -or, edit becomes basic and editor becomes a result of suffixation. However, comparative linguistics and organic chemistry remain basic even when comparative linguist and organic chemist are created. There's no reanalysis. - TAKASUGI Shinji 09:18, 13 April 2006 (UTC)

According to SIL's definition, subtraction must remove a segment from a root or a stem. Comparative linguist and organic chemist therefore should be considered back-formations. - TAKASUGI Shinji 11:32, 13 April 2006 (UTC)
linguist is not a backformation, rather linguist + -ic-s. Likewise, chemistry < chemist. But, chemist is a backformation from alchemist ( < alchemister).
There are different definitions of backformation. It has been mostly discussed as a historical word-formation process. Synchronically, it has been categorized as a sub-type of clipping by some. Basically, these (subtractive morphs or processes, backformation, clipping) are all similar in that they shorten word bases to create new lexemes. – ishwar  (speak) 05:34, 21 September 2007 (UTC)
I don't mean chemist and linguist are backformations. I mean organic chemist and comparative linguist are. I know chemistry comes from chemist, but organic chemist comes from organic chemistry, not vice versa. Anyway, I admit they are not prototypical backformations. We may call them shortening by analogy. Analogy also explains some odd-looking compounds, such as artificial florist and electric guitarist. - TAKASUGI Shinji (talk) 01:20, 27 November 2007 (UTC)

Illiterate, or what?[edit]

The article says: "Some regard such divergence as incorrect, or as a mark of ignorance. Others assert that a language is determined by its usage and that strictly applying such a principle of correctness would render English a highly irregular blend of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, French and every other language from which it had ever borrowed." (Isn't it anyway??)

I think most people would judge different examples piecemeal, depending on how long the particular word has been in use. For example, I regard singulars such as "bicep", "specie" (except in the sense of "money in specie") and "serie" as unforgivably awful, but have no problem in accepting "asset" and "diplomat". As in most cases, the best advice is that of Pope: "Be not the first by whom the new are try’d, Nor yet the last to lay the old aside". -- Sir Myles na Gopaleen (the da) 13:47, 17 May 2006 (UTC)

dis- gruntled[edit]

Disgruntled is an adjective like saddened, not like sad, and 'gruntled' is a word. It's the past tense of the intransitive verb 'gruntle' "to grunt or sulk". The word 'gruntled' was always a mistake. The prefix dis- marks the verb transitive, and therefore allows someone to be disgruntled. One cannot be gruntled. Interestingly, 'gruntle' was back-formed to mean "cause to be more favorably inclined". RoseWill 11:16, 28 June 2006 (UTC)

Workaholic, Chocaholic etc.[edit]

Are words ending in 'aholic' (from alcoholic) truly "back-formations"? and if so, i'd like to see them listed... as they are truly annoying to language pedants. ;-)

I suppose that the suffix "-aholic" is a back-formation. But I don't think the composite words such as "workaholic" are, which is a pity because we need a list of words like this. --Sir Myles na Gopaleen (the da) 12:19, 25 September 2006 (UTC)
Other imaginary suffixes are "-thon" (from Marathon) and "-gate" (from Watergate). These formations are often jocular, and I'm not sure where to fit them in this (or any other) article. --Sir Myles na Gopaleen (the da) 09:42, 3 October 2006 (UTC)


This surely is trolling? So-called black-formation, who is calling it so, does the term really exist? It needs citing its sources. A conjugated noun? Do we mean inflected noun, or uninflected noun? Perceived high degree of use in African-American pop culture? You really will have to tell us who established these facts. Conversate? If there is any substance to this, please re-enter with full citation of sources. Have rolled back and am waiting to be informed of these facts. Dieter Simon 00:54, 20 September 2006 (UTC)


I'm not seeing dystopia as a backformation of utopia. Topia might be one, but then 1) I don't know of topia being used in English and 2) for all I know, topia is an actual Latin(?) word. --Badger151 05:21, 14 October 2006 (UTC)

dystopia is a backformation in the same way that cheeseburger and beefburger are - the incorrect assumption by whoever coined the term was that 'topia' was a suffix to which 'dys' could be added as a suffix. Adambrowne666 11:09, 14 October 2006 (UTC)

Actually, maybe I should take that back - from the dystopia article, it seems 'topia' is kind of a legitimate suffix, so maybe it's not a backformation after all. Not sure what to think now. Adambrowne666 02:15, 15 October 2006 (UTC)

My least favorite back-formations[edit]

"Bicep" and "quadricep" - as if "biceps" and "quadriceps" are actually plural forms. GregorB (talk) 17:26, 20 August 2008 (UTC)

Part of speech[edit]

Back-formation is distinguished from clipping because they change the part of speech

Except that back-formation doesn't necessarily change the part of speech, as illustrated by the examples that derive a noun from a noun. (talk) 20:27, 28 June 2009 (UTC)

Not sure what you are saying: are you saying that back-formation can change its morphology whereas a clipping cannot? Or vice versa? Dieter Simon (talk) 23:19, 28 June 2009 (UTC)

Peace Back-formation[edit]

"...leading to the back-formation pea."

Is this correct? --Jwitch (talk) 12:45, 27 August 2009 (UTC)

Back-formation and Clipping[edit]

The article begins by distinguishing these two concepts, but does not make it clear enough that back-formation is completely unrelated to clipping. The reader is left with a sense that back-formation is a sort of sub-category of clipping, which is quite incorrect. Clipping is a phonological reduction of an existing form, where back-formation is the creation of a spurious derivation based on a false analogy, as in graduate : graduation :: (administrate) : administration, where "administrate" would be a back-formation from "administration". Clipping, on the other hand, requires no such thing (chute : parachute :: ???? : ????) This is why back-formation can change the part of speech (though it need not), while clipping cannot. The former is analysis (though incorrect) while, the latter is simple abbreviation. Fader (talk) 16:17, 5 March 2010 (UTC)

I don't understand...[edit]

Don't worry, I do actually understand the article! It's just I've seen someone I know use "derstand" as a comical opposite of "understand" (with "un" usually being a negative affix, of course). I'm wondering how well-known this one is and if it deserves a mention in the article, if only due to "understand" being a rather common verb. Thanks, Ը२ձւե๓ձռ17 21:37, 15 April 2010 (UTC)

It's a weak one, if you ask me, mainly because it's obviously not an actual case. The "administrate" case I mention above is actual language on the hoof - I actually had to edit that out of a letter written by the CEO of the company I was working for at the time. There are plenty of good examples, I don't see any reason why this spurious case would need to go in. But it's your encyclopedia, put it in if you think it goes in. --Fader (talk) 03:10, 23 November 2010 (UTC)

"derstand"!? This is terrible. It would be funnier if the person said that he overstands

Southern and Northern blotting[edit]

What about the terms denoting nucleic acid hybridization? First, hybridization of DNA was invented by Prof. Edwin Southern and termed Southern blotting. Later, hybridization of RNA was developed and termed, correspondingly, Northern blotting. Zwyciezca (talk) 03:44, 16 June 2011 (UTC)

Disdain, desdeign[edit]

Judging from the etymology of "disdain," the example from Scrubs is not true back-formation. "Deign" is a word, and though it is spelled differently in the modern spelling of "disdain," it means to "regard as worthy" or to respect. From that word is derived the word "disdain." So if the script of Turk's line was spelled "deign," then he would not be inventing a word.Cdg1072 (talk) 20:19, 1 November 2012 (UTC)

Ware folk etymology!!! Deign is (eventually) from Latin dignus. The derivation has nothing to do with modern spelling and neither word was derived from the other; the origin of deign is fairly remote from that of dain, dis or not. In my ignorance I had long regarded "dain" as a joke, like gruntle, but in response to the foregoing comments I looked it up in my trusty Oxford and was richly rewarded as follows (scan lightly edited for readability):
Dain, sb. ME. [Syncope f. dedain, Disdain sb.]
1. Disdain -1591.
2. Stink. Still dial.
So Dain a. haughty; stinking.
Dain v. to disdain.
Dainful a. disdainful.
Interestingly, like gruntle/disgruntle, dain/disdain are not opposites. The first time I saw this was in Mad magazine in the 1950s (I think! It just MIGHT have been Cracked, but I doubt it.) Interviewee when asked "why ... you disdain xyz" replied "...I do not at all dain dis xyz..." and I thought that he had inverted the parity of his negatives, but now I am reamused to see that ad- or abvertently, his construction was quite correct. Of course, the question of the back-formation is more complicated -- lexicographically back-formation has nothing to do with it, but in everyday comic use I reckon dain must have been back-formed repeatedly, almost routinely. JonRichfield (talk) 09:35, 11 May 2013 (UTC)