What is this grammatical thing called?
August 29, 2016 7:34 AM   Subscribe

20ish years ago there was a one-page essay in the (maybe? Last page?) New Yorker that featured many uses of words that had no such root or form. I can't think of any specific words in the essay, but even what the words or practice are called and a list would be nice. Things like "rambunction" for rambunctious, or "consternating" for consternation. Is this mere coinage, or is there a wider practice at work?

At various times I have a small list in my head, but as is customary at the moment I need to access the info the database seems to be down...
posted by nevercalm to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm just going to throw out all the terms I can think of in hopes something helps.

The practice is called back formation, which you could maybe consider a type of folk etymology, and a made up on the spot word is called a nonce word.
posted by ernielundquist at 7:40 AM on August 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


Back-formation? Wikipedia has this list of English back-formations, which you can check to see if these are the kind of thing you're looking for.

But maybe you mean something more like, joke or regional-dialect words, rather than (as in the above list) back-formations that have come to be accepted as "real" words?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:47 AM on August 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


20ish years ago there was a one-page essay in the (maybe? Last page?) New Yorker that featured many uses of words that had no such root or form.

The New Yorker article may have been "How I Met My Wife" by Jack Winter (July 25, 1994 — 22 years ago).
posted by John Cohen at 7:53 AM on August 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


Excerpt from that Jack Winter piece, in case it helps people to identify what you're after:
It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I'd have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. [...]
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:00 AM on August 29, 2016 [23 favorites]


Notice that all the unusual words used in that article are formed by starting with a familiar word that has a negative prefix ("un," "non," etc.) and removing the prefix, e.g. "plussed" (the opposite of nonplussed), "gruntled" (disgruntled), "peccable" (impeccable), "toward and heard-of behavior," "a savory character," etc.
posted by John Cohen at 8:00 AM on August 29, 2016


Yes, back formation is related, and may be what your article was about, but your examples make me think of things like "absquatulate", which aren't actually back formations, but rather ways of snapping together well-known pieces into new-ish words. Back formations are what the NYT piece is about, but while "I was very chalant" quoted above is a back formation, "consternating" and "rambunction" are not (or at least it's debatable, because we aren't just dropping affixes, we're also adding new morphemes, which is not covered by the basic Wikepedia definition of back formation).

I call these words "mislatinations", but that's sort of a joke name, because 1) I made it up and 2) it sort fits the form of generating words based on known morphemes.

My American Heritage Dictionary describes "absquatulate" as a "Mock-latinate formation", and also lists "busticate" and "argufy". There was a comedic bit a while back featuring the word "understandify" - this, like "rambunction" would classify as a Mock-latinate formation, it is a nonce word, but only until it is used enough to become a neologism (keep in mind "cromulent" and "embiggen" are in many nice authoritative dictionaries).

Wikipedia's info on mock-latinate formation is here, in the page titled "Dog Latin".

The general concept at play here is morphological derivation, which basically means that you can take known morphemes and snap them together in meaningful ways.

So that's why "rambunction" is meaningful to me and probably most English speakers. It is true that "rambunctiousness" is a more common way to turn "rambunctious" into a noun, but that's basically just tradition or accident of history.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:21 AM on August 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


John Cohen, you are my hero. Thank you so much! And everyone else too!
posted by nevercalm at 11:41 AM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


I should add that "rambunction" is from "Scenario" by Tribe Called Quest and came just after reading "satisficing" (which is just between satisfying and sufficing), and triggered that question.

Rambunction is more the direction I was headed in, but in re-reading the New Yorker essay I see that that involved, as John Cohen pointed out, dropping prefixes.

Either way, I've started a list on my phone, and if it doesn't turn this into chat filter, I'd love to see some examples here....
posted by nevercalm at 11:45 AM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


There is a chapter on "neglected positives" - these words like chalant, gruntled, and consolate - in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks.
posted by Jeanne at 11:57 AM on August 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


Coincidentally, I happened to wonder about one of your examples a few days ago, and found that "consternate" is, in fact, a verb and has been for quite some time (Merriam-Webster says the first known use was 1651). Just FYI.
posted by bricoleur at 12:14 PM on August 29, 2016


The opposite of "ruthless" is the real but seldom-used "ruth".
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:26 PM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Coincidentally, I happened to wonder about one of your examples a few days ago, and found that "consternate" is, in fact, a verb and has been for quite some time (Merriam-Webster says the first known use was 1651). Just FYI.

I think a lot of the ones that we make by dropping a prefix are things that used to be words in use, but one form dropped out of favor while another one held its own. I'm thinking of "ruth," which we rarely/never use in contemporary speech or writing (except sometimes in religious contexts), and "ruthless," which is a pretty common word.

There's also a phenomenon where writers or speakers create an unnecessary form that duplicates an existing form. "Truthiness" for "truth" was done deliberately, but I often see examples when I'm reading—can't think of one off the top of my head, alas.
posted by not that girl at 12:29 PM on August 29, 2016


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