When she was fresh out of college, my wife lived in Aspen, Colorado, playground for the rich and famous (she was neither rich nor famous: she waited tables for the rich and famous). A young man she knew there told her a story that I dearly hope is true. He had somehow got invited to a fancy party on the same weekend that his parents were visiting from Iowa. This was a party for the rich and famous; there was no way he was going to miss it. On the other hand, he couldn’t very well ditch his parents after they had come all the way way from Iowa. So he brought his parents along.

His father was standing by the bar, watching all the beautiful people, when a well-dressed man came to get his drink refilled. “Hi there,” said the father, reaching out his hand to shake. “I’m Herb Knudten.” 

The other man, surprised, shook his hand. “Hello, Herb,” he said. “I’m Ralph Lauren.” 

Herb nodded a friendly, Midwestern nod. “So, Ralph,” he said, “what do you do for a living?”

It’s a dad joke come to life…only I don’t know if the joke is on the dad, or if the dad is the one playing a joke on Ralph Lauren. 

Speaking of dad jokes, here’s a classic…

Interlocutor 1: Do you like Kipling?
Interlocutor 2: I can’t say. I’ve never kippled. 

This particular dad joke revolves around a linguistic phenomenon known as back-formation. Back-formation is the process by which a new word (a neologism) is created by removing a supposed suffix, usually in error (or, in this case, for comic effect). Because it ends in -ing, Kipling sounds like a gerund. And since a gerund is formed by adding -ing to a verb, one should be able to remove the -ing and be left with a verb—in this case, to kipple

The verb burgle is a back-formation from the noun burglarBurglar sounds like it would have been made by adding the -er morpheme to the verb burgle, but it was the other way around. Burglar, according to etymonline.com, is shortened from the Anglo-Latin term burglator and goes back as far as the thirteenth centiury. The verb burgle first appeared in the 1860s. There seems to be some question whether burgle was introduced as a humorous word or as a linguistic error (I suspect it was humorous).

In case it helps clarify things, consider the relationship between the verb rob and the noun robberRob not a back-formation from robber because the noun robber actually is formed by adding the –er morpheme to the verb, just as it appears. 

The word pea is a back-formation from pease, as in

Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold.
Pease porridge in the pot 
Nine days old.

Pease porridge is a porridge made of pease—or, as we would say in modern English, a porridge made of peasPease was a “mass noun” comparable to corn or wheat. If you reached into a bucket of wheat and picked out one kernel, you wouldn’t say, “I am holding a wheat.” If you were eating a bowl of corn, you wouldn’t say, “These corn are delicious.” But if you were sitting in your sixteenth-century cottage with a bowl of pease, the grammatically correct sentence “this pease is delicious” might sound funny to your ear—especially if you couldn’t read and didn’t know how it was spelled. And if you reached into your bowl of pease and pulled out one morsel, you’d be mightily tempted to call that morsel a pea. You’d be making a mistake, but it would be a logical mistake. That logical mistake is where our word pea comes from.

I feel obliged occasionally to remind you, dear reader, that linguistic errors—grammar errors, spelling errors, etc.—are rarely illogical. Rather, they are too logical. A person applies the rules in a situation in which an exception rather than the rule applies. So if you choose to mock or belittle a person for a grammar error, know that you are probably mocking them for being overly logical.

Unkempt, Disheveled
I probably should have pulled this little love poem out last month, when we were talking about Valentines and love letters, but here’s one of my favorites from Ogden Nash (who, incidentally, was related to the Francis Nash for whom Nashville was named):

My Dream

This is my dream,

It is my own dream,

I dreamt it.

I dreamt that my hair was kempt.

Then I dreamt that my true love unkempt it.

There is a phenomenon in English whereby the negative form of a word survives after the base word has disappeared. We still have unruly and ungainly, but ruly and gainly are long gone. Unkempt is another example. Kempt meant combed in Middle English. So when Ogden Nash describes his hair as kempt, he appears to be inventing a back-formation, but as it turns out he’s reviving the archaic origin of unkempt. On the other hand, I don’t know what you call his use of unkempt as a past-tense verb rather than a past participle. It’s not a back-formation, but it’s definitely in the spirit of the comic back-formation.

Disheveled is one of those words that seems like it is begging for a back-formation. If a person with disordered hair and clothes is disheveled, a person who is neatly put together ought to be sheveled. The act of tucking in your shirt should be sheveling. I’ve even got a fake etymology all lined up: sheveling, it would appear, derives from the act of pulling your clothes down from your shelves and putting them on.

As I was investigating that word disheveled I ran across an explanation for why Brits describe irritable and querulous people as shirty. The image is of a person who is disheveled in anger. There were always boys in my junior high who were disheveled (and also sweaty) in anger. I wish I had known to call them shirty.

The phrase “keep your shirt on” is related. The saying originated in the nineteenth century, when it was customary for men to take their shirts off before they engaged in fisticuffs. At my house we tend to say “keep your pants on,” not because it makes a lot of sense, but because it’s funnier than “keep your shirt on.” 

Have you ever considered the oddity of the verb destruct (or self-destruct)? We already have the verb destroy, from which derives the noun destruction. The verb destruct goes back to the 1950s Space Race, when American engineers built in self-destruction capabilities to rockets and missiles. Self-destruct back-formed from there.  It jumped from technical to popular usage in the 1960s thanks to the opening sequence of the Mission Impossible television show: “This tape will self-destruct in five seconds.”

And finally, let us consider the relationship between the verb escalate and the noun escalatorTo escalate is to rise quickly. So it makes sense that an escalator is a device that causes people to rise quickly from the first floor to the second floor: just add that helpful –er morpheme to the verb, and, voila, we’ve got ourselves a new noun. That’s what I would have assumed, anyway. But that’s not how it went down.

The noun escalator was originally a trade name. In 1897 a man named Charles Seeberger reworked an existing concept of an “inclined elevator” or “moving stairs” into the modern escalator. He came up with the name by combining the Latin word scala (steps) into the word elevator. The back-formation escalate soon followed in the 1920s, but really hit its stride during the Cold War when escalation and de-escalation came to be used figuratively in relation to nuclear strategy and diplomacy.

Bonus Phrase: L’Esprit d’Escalier
The words escalator and scala made me think of the French phrase l’esprit d’escalier—literally “staircase wit.” L’esprit d’escalier is the phenomenon whereby you think of the perfect response, but only after it’s too late. The phrase originates with the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean Diderot, who wrote about a time he realized exactly what he should have said at a dinner party, but it only came to him on his way out of the party, at the bottom of the stairs.

As you may remember, George Costanza’s acute case of l’esprit d’escalier was once the basis of a whole episode of Seinfeld.

1 Comment
  • Keith
    3:24 PM, 14 March 2022

    Next time I’m in a group and we need to go up or down the escalator for whatever reason, I’m definitely going to say “let’s escalate” or “let’s de-escalate.”

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