We Like Big Back-Formations

by Angela Tung on August 12, 2013

American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos ) (bird) in Mo

Inspired by our list of the day, Baby Got Back-Formations, which was in turn inspired by the posteriophile, Sir Mix-a-Lot, we’ve gathered here eight common words you might not have known are back-formations, that is, shortened versions of sometimes-obsolete longer words.

berserk

“A young Corapolis man who went berserk at a Christmas party in his own home because the victim early yesterday morning when he decided to shoot it out with police who came to quiet him.”

Berserk Host Is Wounded In Duel With Cops,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 27, 1950

The word berserk refers to differing degrees of craziness, from “frenetically violent” to “mentally or emotionally upset” to “unrestrained, as with enthusiasm or appetite.”

It’s also a back-formation of berserker, “one of a band of ancient Norse warriors legendary for their savagery and reckless frenzy in battle.” The word was introduced by Scottish author, Sir Walter Scott and comes from the Old Norse ber, “bear,” plus serkr, “shirt,” which together mean “a warrior clothed in bearskin.”

bum

“There are no bums among them. The statements that have been sent out about their being tramps and all that sort of thing are untrue.”

Claim They Are Not Bums,” The Lewiston Daily Sun, April 21, 1894

The word bum meaning tramp, vagrant, or loafer, has been around since around 1864, says the Online Etymology Dictionary. It comes from bummer, an older word with the same meaning, which in turn ultimately comes from the German bummeln, “go slowly, waste time.”

Bummer meaning an adverse reaction to a drug or something depressing or frustrating is from the late 1960s. Bum meaning “buttocks,” in case you were wondering, originated in the 14th century. The word could be onomatopoeic, says the Oxford English Dictionary, “with the general sense of ‘protuberance, swelling’.”

gab

“That gift of gab for which wives have been blamed, and rarely praised, over the years, is coming in mighty handy to the men candidates in current congressional campaigns.”

Dorothy McCardle, “In Fall Political Campaigns,” The Miami News, October 14, 1954

The origin of gab, meaning to talk a lot, is a kind of back-and-forth formation. It came about in 1786, probably as a shortening of gabble, which has the same meaning. Gabble originated 200 years earlier as a frequentive of gab meaning “to reproach.”

pea

“When we were eager to cook, a ham bone tucked away in the freezer inspired a pot of pea soup.”

Split Pea Soup with a Twist,” Chicago Tribune, February 24, 2010

The word pea is what’s called a false singular. A false singular is formed when a word that ends in an s or z is wrongly thought to be plural, and an alteration of the word thought to be singular is made. The misinterpreted plural in this case was the Middle English pease.

Pease Porridge Hot is a nursery rhyme that originated around 1760. Pease here is treated as a mass noun.

mesmerize

“Seated across the table, at the police station, the Hindu philosopher gazed dreamily into the eyes of Chief Quigg in an effort to mesmerize him, but the hypnotic influences were sharply interrupted when the chief ordered him to stop.”

Yogi’s Effort at Hypnotizing,” The Miami News, February 2, 1928

Mesmerize, meaning to enthrall or hypnotize, was formed from mesmerism, which while now refers to fascination in general originally referred to hypnotism, specifically the early 19th century “doctrine that one person can exercise influence over the will and nervous system of another.” Mesmerism was named for its creator, Franz Mesmer, a German physician.

sherry

“The landlord allowed himself to be dissuaded, and, after a glass or two of ale, confessed that sherry was a sickly disagreeable drink, and that he had merely been in the habit of taking it from an idea he had that it was genteel.”

George Borrow, The Romany Rye: A Sequel to ‘Lavengro’

Sherry, a fortified Spanish wine, is another false singular. The original word was the Middle English sherris, which comes from the Spanish (vino de) Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” Xeres is now commonly known as Jerez.

sidekick

“The best ball player that ever crawled into a uniform was Mike Kelly of Paterson, and you still have with you my old sidekick, Jim McCormick.”

Paterson Is Cool to Billy Sunday,” The New York Times, April 5, 1915

Sidekick, which originated originated in 1906, was originally side-kicker, as popularized by O. Henry in 1904 short story: “Billy was my side-kicker in New York.” According to World Wide Words, side-kicker comes from an even older term, side-partner.

tee

“At the ‘Tee,’ for the first shot, the ball may be placed on a little heap of sand or earth, about 1/4 inch high, known as the ‘Tee’ also.”

“Some Remarks on Golf,” The Grove: A Monthly Miscellany, November 1891

Another false singular! The golf tee comes from the Scottish teaz. Although the origin of teaz is unknown, the original form was “a little heap of sand.”

waft

“There came in with the man a kind of waft of the sea as he threw off his great-coat and clattered his cutlass in a corner–a fine figure of a man, towering up to the rafters, and his voice held in as though it would be more comfortable to hurl an order in the teeth of a gale.”

John Sillars, The McBrides: A Romance of Arran

The word waft, to cause to go smoothly over water or to float gently, is a back-formation as well. It comes from wafter, an “armed convoy or escort ship.” Wafter ultimately comes from the Middle Low German wachter, “a guard.”

This list is nowhere near complete. Again, check out our list of the day for even more back-formations.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by Mike Baird]

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