MED Magazine - Issue 9 - July 2003

Cutting a long word short — creating new words in English
by Diane Nicholls

Next in the series of articles on Language Interference

Where do new words come from?

When we feel the lack of a word to express our meaning, there are a number of options available to us. The method most frequently used is affixation — the adding of a prefix, a suffix or both to an existing word to create a longer word that gets our meaning across. This comes naturally to us all from a very early age. It was through affixation that we got the adjective unbelievable. Somebody took the verb believe, added the suffix -able to create the adjective believable and then added the prefix un- to get unbelievable. It filled a gap that was felt in the lexicon and was adopted by others, becoming a common word in the language. Startlingly few new words (or neologisms) are created entirely from scratch, the overwhelming majority are created by recycling old words in this way. Sometimes a new word is created to meet a real lexical need and enters the language to stay. At other times we just make words up for the moment, for fun, or for some other effect. Remember lovable Frank the tortoise in Nick Park's animated advert for Heat Electric? He praised his new heating system for being 'easily switchonandoffable'. Though we all loved it and there isn't a standard adjective for what he was describing, it just hasn't caught on.

Affixes, then, are used as building blocks to extend words to create new words with the same or different parts of speech. Beauty becomes beautify, beautification, beautiful, beautician, and, when ugly just won't do, unbeautiful. The Macmillan English Dictionary (MED) includes 27 words with the stem 'beaut' in them. No real bar exists to the creation of debeautify, debeautification, hyperbeautiful, megabeautiful, beautyism, sub-beautiful, and beauty-like either. I could go on. We also have the option of simply linking two or more words together to create compounds, as in beauty contest, beauty mark, beauty parade, beauty parlour, beauty queen, beauty sleep etc. This is called compounding.

With 111 suffixes and 101 prefixes listed in MED, the potential for expanding old words to create new ones seems endless. Do words just get bigger and bigger, then?

Derivation by shortening

Expansion is the most common process of word derivation, but there are 3 less common processes by which longer words are shortened to create new words. One is blending. Two words, most often nouns, are taken and squashed together so that they overlap. Among the most common are: brunch, from breakfast and lunch; motel, from motor and hotel; smog, from smoke and fog; Oxbridge, from Oxford and Cambridge; and guesstimate, from guess and estimate. A recently coined blend for the email generation is emoticon, from emotion and icon.

Another process which creates words shorter than those they are derived from is clipping. A word is shortened by cutting off its beginning or ending. This usually creates new words which have the same part of speech as, but are less formal in register than, the words they are derived from. Hence, we have both advertisement and the more informal shortening ad. The same applies to laboratory and lab, aeroplane and plane, examination and exam, demonstration and demo, motorcar and car, and flu, which was derived by clipping both the beginning and the ending from influenza. In some cases, the register difference has become almost imperceptible and in others the shortened word has more or less taken over from the longer word it was lopped from. This is the case, for example, with omnibus and bus, pantaloons and pants, and brassiere and bra.

A third process which derives shorter words from longer originals is known as back formation.

Back formation

Back formation is often omitted from discussions of derivational morphology because many see it as, basically, an aberration. Back formations are formed when a new word is created by removing a supposed affix from an existing word. For example, the verb enthuse was created in the 20th century by back formation from the much older noun enthusiasm. Similarly, the verb emote was coined in the US in the 20th century from the noun emotion, which had existed (with its current meaning) since the 17th century.

Back formation, unlike clipping, changes the part of speech of the original word. The most common back formations form a new verb from an old noun: televise from television, automate from automation, choreograph from choreography, ablute from ablution, for instance. One could posit a verb to back-form in the same way.

This is a very productive process. A common example is the creation of verbs from nouns that denote a person who does a particular thing, for example, babysitter. The existence of the noun babysitter gave rise, logically, to the subsequent need for a verb to describe what a babysitter does. Hence, the new back-formed verb, to babysit. The verbs swindle, peddle, edit, burgle and hawk came into existence in the same way.

A large proportion of back formations are formed from borrowings — words 'borrowed' into English from other languages. This is the case with the verb liaise, for example, and with many of the verbs listed above. Only the noun — liaison — was borrowed, but its existence gave rise to the need for a corresponding verb and, perhaps, to the assumption that such a verb already existed. There was no corresponding French verb liaiser to borrow along with liaison as a package deal (though a technical term liaisonner does exist), so one had to be invented.

Creating opposites using back formation

A different type of back formation occurs when an adjective is created from another adjective based on the assumption that because it starts with what looks like a prefix, an opposite without that prefix must exist (affixation in reverse). This is the case with ept, which was created by deleting the negative prefix in- from inept, which existed first. Of course, ept is not in common use. It is not in MED, for example, or recognised by my spellchecker, though inept is.

Michael Quinion points out the curious tendency of English to favour the survival of negative words over positive ones. Unruly, ungainly and untoward were all formed by standard affixation from their positive opposites: ruly, gainly and toward, but while the former survive, the adjectives they were derived from have fallen by the wayside.

Purists frown on back formations and many style guides urge writers to avoid them at all costs. Whether we like it or not, though, back formation seems to be here to stay.

Back formation and comic effect

Back formation is a perfect example of the creative power of language. Apart from filling lexical gaps, it can also be used for great comic effect. Creating new words by non-standard derivation is an important part of punning. We all do it. A friend complained recently that he had been asked to be an usher at a third wedding this year. He exclaimed indignantly: 'Do I look like a man who likes to ush? Do they think I enjoy ushing?!' Comedians use it too. An old favourite is the joke which goes 'Do you enjoy Kipling?' and the answer comes 'I can't rightly say. I've never kipled'. An Alexei Sayle sketch satirising fictional awkward early puns by Oscar Wilde has the young author being asked at customs 'Do you have anything to declare?' and he replies 'How can I? I haven't clared anything yet?'. The prize, though, goes to Woody Allen in the film Love and Death, responding to an accusation of being jejune:

Woody Allen: You have the temerity to say that I'm blocking you out of jejunosity? I'm one of the most june people in all of the Russias!

Here Woody Allen uses affixation to create a comical-sounding noun, jejunosity (admittedly, from an already bizarre-sounding adjective), but also uses back formation to create a shorter, putative adjective june to denote the opposite of jejune.

Further reading

An interesting study of word-formation processes in US English by H.L. Mencken is available at

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