Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Brief Commentation

You’ve probably heard the old joke (which certainly does not bear repeating, but try and stop me) about the aristocratic young potato whose parents would not allow her to marry Dan Rather because he was only a common tater.  But today’s question is: does a commentator commentate?  By the same token, does an administrator administrate, does an orientation orientate, and do planes in formation formate?

The answer to all the above is yes—sort of.  All those verbs—commentate, administrate, orientate, and yes, believe it or not, formate—are back formations that were formated—oops, formed—from longer words mistakenly assumed to be derivatives of non-existent shorter ones. These back-formed –ate words derive from Latin and French and came into English without reference to the shorter English words that they resemble.  Commentator, for example, from which commentate was invented, was from the Latin commentatio (“a study or meditation”) and not from the English word comment.  Commentator was used in English from the 14th century, and commentate as a verb came along by the end of the 18th century. 

Most back-formed words are considered sub-standard, needless variants--comment, administer, orient, and form will usually suffice--but sometimes the back-formations, such as donate, notate, sedate, and spectate, achieve accepted status. 

Not all back-formations end in –ate. Others, of varying degrees of acceptability, include emote, enthuse, diagnose, intuit, and reune. Some are often purposely used for humorous effect, like buttle, burgle, couth, kempt, and shevelled.   P. G. Wodehouse once wrote of a man, “…if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who was in a brace for weeks after trying some back-formations, insists on trying again:

            In a creet hotel in a mid-sized urb,
            The sign on the door commands, “Do Turb.”
            The gruntled occupants are trying to coze
            So don’t surveil them, for heaven knows
            They’re still gidding from their recent marriage,
            And not one visitor will they dain or parage.

1 comment:

  1. Although I am normally pretty traught and pair your attempts at poetation make me want to add a dis to dos.