Luke’s Languages: Let me Presto Myself


Hi, everyone! Good to see you again! Yeah, I know it’s getting to that heavy time of the semester… but after a weekend of beautiful weather, who wouldn’t be chipper?

A couple of days ago a friend of mine posted on Facebook about a new word she heard someone use that is really not a word: “presto” as a verb. Someone was getting on a MiWay bus and said, “Let me just Presto myself,” meaning “swipe my Presto card through the validator”. I’ve talked before about why we shouldn’t worry so much that English is “degenerating” (for example, episodes two and six from last semester). Now I want to talk about how new words are formed.

First, I think it’s wonderful when we become self-aware, and the same goes for metalinguistic awareness. So here are eight of the most common mechanisms that everyone uses, with examples to keep it interesting and formal names so you can fancy it up in front of your friends.

Conversion is when a word changes part of speech—a verb becomes a noun, a noun becomes a verb, and so on. (As the Internet cartoon Homestar Runner says, “I sportsmanliked everybody!”) In English, we have the stealthy zero derivation, where the form of the word doesn’t change, so you can’t tell without context that the word has been converted. This is what we see in the example of “Presto”, and for some reason it really gets people’s backs up. But the language is chock-full of accepted examples: you can “table” a motion and “chair” a meeting; you can “eye” someone or “hand” them a piece of cake; snow can “cushion” a fall and “blanket” the earth.

Eponymy is when a word for a whole class of things is formed from a name. To take brand names, for example, most people I know say “kleenex” and “jello” even if they don’t mean the Kleenex and Jell-O brands. Right now Adobe’s official policy is “Please don’t say ‘photoshop’ except in reference to Photoshop.” Sorry, Adobe, but it’s way too late for that. Maybe you should just take it as a compliment.

Root creation is when an entirely new word is coined. As you might imagine, it’s not as common as using material you already have. It might surprise you to learn that “blatant” (1596: Edmund Spenser, poet), “yahoo” (1726: Jonathan Swift, satirist), “gas” (1650s: J.B. van Helmont, chemist), and “blurb” (1907: Gelett Burgess, humorist) were all coined without precedent.

Abbreviation is when one word is “clipped” to form a new one. Sometimes they become so common that we’re no longer aware of their origin, like “piano” ultimately from piano e forte, Italian for “soft and loud” (the instrument was more dynamic than its predecessor, the harpsichord), “dis” from “disrespect”, and “bus” from “omnibus”.

Acronymy is when a word is boiled down to its initials. We all recognize RCMP, UTM, and CIBC as acronyms. But if the word is easy to pronounce as it’s read, it can lose the appearance of being an acronym. Take “scuba” (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), “taser” (Tom A. Swift’s electric rifle), and “yuppie” (young urban professional). I suspect “FAQ”, “RAM”, and “ASAP” are headed this way too.

Amalgamation is when words are blended together to form a new one. Lewis Carroll coined (among many others) “chortle” from “chuckle” + “snort”, and “smog” is from “smoke” + “fog”. Some subtler ones are “already”, “always”, “almost”, each of which used to have “all” as a separate word.

Compounding is also when words are joined, but (among more technical differences) they preserve their form better. This is one of the most common processes across languages; it seems the human mind likes to think of new concepts in terms of combinations of old ones. There are tons of examples, but a few recent ones are “girlfriend” (1922), “software” (1953), and “studmuffin” (1986).

Backformation is when a word is reanalyzed, consciously or not, and deconstructed into multiple parts—parts it never originally had. There never used to be such a thing as a “pea” in English. There was “pease”, which speakers reanalyzed as “pea” + plural “s”. This can happen when the parents are saying one thing, but their children are misinterpreting what they hear; no one notices until one day they happen to say “pea”, the new word they deduced. Reanalysis can also happen intentionally, though. For example, “enthuse” from “enthusiasm” and “televise” from “television” are clearly verbs backformed from the noun; more surprisingly, “act” never existed till it was backformed from “action”, nor “edit” from “editor”. Notice how I just used the verb “backformed”, which I backformed from “backformation”. Sometimes the reanalyzed part then takes on a life of its own; I just Googled “quake suffix” and found examples of “moonquake”, “seaquake”, and “youthquake” (try to figure out what that one means). This horrifies language purists, but the process is very common.

Okay, cool. Now, I want to tell the story of one recent word. That word is “vlog”.

The story begins with the coining of “worldwide”, a compound of “world + wide”, in the 16th century. Then, using “web” metaphorically, a couple of very important geeks named Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau coined the compound “World Wide Web” in 1990 (don’t ask me why they spelled it that way). This being kind of clunky, people started abbreviating it to just “the Web”. Some users started writing logs of their thoughts and posting them on the Web. So what do you call that? Why, you just make up another compound: “Web log”.

Phonology often interacts with word formation, and the next step involves an important phonological rule. In English, when we have a cluster of sounds between two syllables—like “bl” between “Web + log”—we cram as much of it as we can into the start of the second syllable instead of leaving them at the end of the first one. So when people began abbreviating “Web log” to just its second syllable, the “b” hung on to make “blog”. As the technology developed, it became possible to blog using video. A new compound was needed: “video blog”. But people weren’t satisfied saying that whole phrase all the time, so it got amalgamated to “vlog”. Since then, it’s undergone conversion to a verb—someone could be vlogging right now.

Word formation, man. There’s a method to the madness.

Before I wrap up, I can’t resist pointing out one more thing this story. Notice how “vlog” starts with “vl”. This is incredibly uncommon in English phonology—in fact, it’s supposed to be an illegal cluster. Try to think of any other words we have that start with “vl”. The only ones are from other languages, like “Vladimir”. But of all the illegal clusters of sounds, English speakers tend to have an easy time saying “vl” (compared to, say, German’s “pf” or French’s “pn”). That could be because it’s very close to “fl”, which is allowed.

So the question is this. Did English’s rules for legal sound clusters change when “vlog” was coined? Did English speakers just decide it was okay one day? Or was it always okay, and we just happened not to have any words that started with “vl”, until we coined the first one just now?

Yep, language is always changing. But in my opinion, the really interesting changes aren’t new words. They’re the system-wide changes, like allowing “vl”, the changes that can stealth us without us noticing.