October 01, 2005

to the front

William Safire in his column "On Language" in The New York Times (Oct. 2, 2005):

We have seen how to back-form a new noun by lopping the -y off adjectives. It works in the coinage of verbs, too: baby-sit from baby sitter, typewrite from typewriter (I'm keying this in) and liaise from the French liaison. I don't like liaise, a self-important, bureaucratic substitute for "work with," but I like surveil, because "surveillance" has more of a pervasive and sinister quality than "watch" or "follow." I don't cotton to enthuse, a verb back-formed from "enthusiasm," because I prefer the pejorative gush. On the other hand, reminisce, convalesce and resurrect are useful and even beautiful back-formations.
so far, so good. but now:
Back-form is a verb formed from the noun back-formation, just as edit is a verb created by editing the end of the noun editor. Try it yourself; become a neologist. You can even front-form: computerese has brought us unsubscribe (cancel my subscription!) and uninstall (rip it out of the wall!). By paring down words and shuffling the parts of speech you may coin a word that fills a void and catches on. Better leading a life of raunch than living in a world of hurt.
let's just say that the survival chances of front-form are not very good. it's neither sinister, nor particularly beautiful, nor in any way useful. in fact, it's quite confusing. unsubscribe is formed by simple prefixation. that's all.

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