Words & Stuff

bb: Ought the Otter to Ott? (Reader Comments and Addenda)

(30 May 2002)

Stacey points out that a doctor is one who doctors, and an engineer is one who engineers.

She adds:

My mother tells me of an infamous familial Scrabble game in which my great uncle tried to get away with adding the "re" prefix to the word "zoom" on the table, producing "'rezoom'...to zoom more than once". I believe they gave it to him -- deserving of creativity points, if nothing else. (So I suppose the related question arises: if one can "resume", what exactly does it mean to "sume"?)

Pierre Abbat writes: "If a booklet is a small book, what's a pamphlet?"

Dominus explains that his original question wasn't just about professions; "hammer" also fits his criteria (that is, a "hammer" is something that hammers). It turns out that he compiled an extensive list of terms for which the noun is the same as the verb performed by the noun; I've added Stacey's "engineer" as well as Dominus' "hammer."

Dominus also notes that "pease" sounded plural so people back-formated the singular to be "pea," and that the French word "cerise" sounded plural so English speakers created a new singular, "cherry." A less well-known example along similar lines, he points out, is "pry"; the verb "to prize" sounded like a third-person present-tense verb ("He prize the emerald out of its fitting") so people created a first- and second-person form of the verb, "pry," which eventually evolved its own third-person present-tense form, "pries." Dominus is eager (or was when he wrote, which was rather a while ago) for more examples of this kind of thing, back-formations from a verb to another verb form.

(Thanks to Ananda for pointing out a confusing typo here, which has now been corrected.)

All these years later, Dave Solomon points out that my gardener example at the end of the column is flawed; by the analogy I'd set up, a gardener would work in a gardenery, not a gardeny. Thanks, Dave! Unfortunately, that also points out a flaw in my attempt to be clever about rookery; I meant to suggest that a rook would work there, but of course it would really be a rooker. Ah, well. Figured I'd post the corrections on this addenda page rather than trying to fix the column itself.

This update should not, alas, be taken as an indication that I'm finally going to catch up on a couple years' worth of unposted reader comments. Wish I could, but time doesn't allow. I just happened to have a couple minutes this time, and decided to post the comment on a whim; also, it didn't hurt that Dave pointed out that the Web page for the NPR quiz show Whad'Ya Know pointed to my back-formation page, so this page may be getting a bit more traffic than usual.

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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>