Definition and Examples of Back-Formation

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

burglar lurking at home window
" Burgle (back-formed from burglar) continues to have a jocular effect (in AmE)," says Bryan Garner, "as do effuse, emote, laze, and the learned word metamorphose" ( Garner's Modern American Usage, 2009).

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In linguistics, back-formation is the process of forming a new word (a neologism) by removing actual or supposed affixes from another word. Put simply, a back-formation is a shortened word (such as edit) created from a longer word (editor). Verb: back-form (which is itself a back-formation). Also called back-derivation.

The term back-formation was coined by Scottish lexicographer James Murray, the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from 1879 until 1915.

As Huddleston and Pullum have noted, "There is nothing in the forms themselves that enables one to distinguish between affixation and back-formation: it's a matter of historical formation of words rather than of their structure" (A Student's Introduction To English Grammar, 2005).

Pronunciation: BAK for-MAY-shun

Examples and Observations

  • singular noun pea from the older English plural pease
  • the verb burgle from the older English noun burglar
  • the verb diagnose from the older English noun diagnosis

"He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled, so I tactfully changed the subject." (P.G. Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters, 1938)

"Here I was maybe forty minutes ago, sort of claustrophobed in the gap between the kickass movie world where Lila dumps the guy with the smarmy mustache and the obvious one where it just keeps getting later."(Daniel Handler, Adverbs. Ecco, 2006)

"Stripping the in- from inchoate is known as back-formation, the same process that has given us words like peeve (from peevish), surveil (from surveillance) and enthuse (from enthusiasm). There’s a long linguistic tradition of removing parts of words that look like prefixes and suffixes to come up with 'roots' that weren’t there to begin with." (Ben Zimmer, "Choate." The New York Times, January 3, 2010)

Suffix Snipping

"Alan Prince studied a girl who . . . was delighted by her discovery that eats and cats were really eat + -s and cat + -s. She used her new suffix snipper to derive mik (mix), upstair, downstair, clo (clothes), len (lens), brefek (from brefeks, her word for breakfast), trappy (trapeze), even Santa Claw. Another child, overhearing his mother say they had booze in the house, asked what a 'boo' was. One seven-year-old said of a sports match, 'I don't care who they're going to verse,' from expressions like the Red Sox versus the Yankees." (Steven Pinker, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language. HarperCollins, 1999)

"In many cases of back-formation a presumed affix is removed which is in fact not truly an affix, as in the following words where the -or, -ar, and -er are not the agentive suffix, but part of the root: orator - -er> orate, lecher + -er> lech, peddler + -er> peddle, escalator + -er> escalate, editor + -er> edit, swindle + -er> swindle, sculptor + -er> sculpt, hawker + -er> hawk. These mistakes are called back-formations. Note that some of them are colloquial or marginal, while others are fully accepted." (Laurel J. Brinton, The Structure of Modern English: A Linguistic Introduction. John Benjamins, 2000)

Back-Formation in Middle English

"[T]he weakening of the flexional endings during the early Middle English period, which made possible the derivation from verbs of a multitude of nouns, and vice-versa, was also as essential to the rise of and development of back-formation." (Esko V. Pennanen, Contributions to the Study of Back-Formation in English, 1966)

Back-Formation in Contemporary English

"Back formation continues to make a few contributions to the language. Television has given televise on the model of revise/revision, and donation has given donate on the model of relate/relation. Babysitter and stage manager have given babysit and stage manage for obvious reasons. More remote was the surprising lase from laser (the latter an acronym for 'lightwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation'), recorded from 1966." (W.F. Bolton, A Living Language: The History and Structure of English. Random House, 1982)

Filling a Void

"Backformations are more likely to occur with very strongly entrenched patterns and they have the effect of filling an apparent void. The process has given us common verbs such as afflict (from affliction), enthuse (from enthusiasm), laze (from lazy), liaise from liaison), aggress (from aggression), televise (from television), housekeep (from housekeeper), jell (from jelly), and many more." (Kate Burridge, Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English Language History. HarperCollins Australia, 2011)


"[B]ack-formations are objectionable when they are merely needless variations of already existing verbs:

back-formed verb - ordinary verb
*administrate - administer
*cohabitate - cohabit
*delimitate - delimit
*interpretate - interpret
*orientate - orient
*registrate - register
*remediate - remedy
*revolute - revolt

Many back-formations never gain real legitimacy (e.g., *elocute, *enthuse), some are aborted early in their existence (e.g., *ebullit, *evolute), and still others are of questionable vigor (e.g., aggress, attrit, effulge, evanesce, frivol). . . .

"Still, many examples have survived respectably." (Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. Oxford University Press, 2009)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Back-Formation." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Back-Formation. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Back-Formation." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).