Category Archives: back-formation

“Most, if not all, people can relate to Don during this troubling moment.”

First let me admit that one of my current crusades is to stamp out the phrase “relate to.” Particularly in literature classes, its use is pervasive and daunting: “I can relate to Hamlet.” “The Canterbury Tales is hard to relate to because it’s written in Old [sic] English.” “I can relate to the Puritans but they were wrong about witches.” “Beowulf brags too much to be relatable.” Oh, please!

One of my students even coined (or repurposed?) a  noun to express this concept: “relativity.” No, nothing to do with Einstein; just a variant form of “relatability,” evidently. (Nice to see that Spellcheck thinks “relatability” is something-or-other misspelled , not a real word…)

You can follow either of the links in the above sentences for fully-deployed RAB expressions of despair.

And now, Class, we turn our attention to friend Don, that possibly-universally-relatable chap. I wish I had recorded which of Don’s many “troubling” moments my student was referring to here, but perhaps that doesn’t matter: it was something most, if not all, of us would see ourselves in, understand, associate with our own experience, want to associate ourselves with, or whatever “relate to” means….

Is Don some friend of my student’s? A sibling of hers? Or perhaps someone famous, so famous that only his first name is needed for identification? Or, uh, a character in a play, named simply “Don”? (So many modern plays name their characters “Man” and “Woman” that “Don No-Last-Name” seems at least possible.)

Do you have a moment? Would you like to read a little about a famous composer named Bay?

So, if you went there, you will have read another RAB rant, this one about calling people by their first names even if they’re strangers to you, authority figures, or famous writers or composers. I’m trying to stamp that practice out, too, of course.

Furthermore, the lover of Bay compounded the informality with lack of knowledge, mistaking the first syllable of his surname for his given name, almost the same error my student makes with Don.

All this is mere preamble to the astonishing Don.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Part II of one of western literature’s most famous and important works of fiction, and this is being celebrated by many groups, in many ways. For example, Dickinson College, my alma mater, has been celebrating it with a read-in and some festive campus and international events. Now you’ve guessed who Don is, haven’t you?

Yes, Don Quixote. Hero of Don Quixote. Good old Don.

What my student didn’t realize is that Don is, of course, not the gentleman’s given name, but his TITLE. Alonso Quixano, voracious reader, longs for the life of bygone knights errant; this member of the Spanish minor aristocracy therefore renames himself Don Quixote de la Mancha, persuades a tenant farmer to serve as his Squire, and sets off into the world he manages to imaginatively recreate as the land of his dreams, with various touching successes and howling disasters as the consequence. “Don Quixote” would be, in English, pretty much “Lord Quixote.” And nobody refers to George Gordon, Lord Byron, as “Lord,” any more than people refer to Alfred, Lord Tennyson as “Alfred Lord.” Well, nobody I’ve met yet, I hasten to qualify.

Should my student have known that “Don” is an honorific, not a name? Yes, I believe she should have. She should at least have noticed that in class I did not once refer to this character as “Don.” But since she knew the word “Don” already—perhaps does have a friend or relative of that name—she didn’t really think about it, either whether she should call this man “Don” or whether “Don” even sounded like a Spanish first name! She plunged into the assigned reading without looking at the textbook’s Introduction, noticing the book’s setting, or in any way considering that there was anything about the book that made it different from her own world. And THEN, having mistaken “Don” for the character’s first name, she proceeded to assume sufficient intimacy with him to call him by it—throughout a paper that supposedly discussed this literary work in an academic way.

The culture of the world in which we live, move, and have our being has changed a lot in the last few decades, and traditions of formality, conventions of academic writing, and various kinds of awareness seem to be falling by the wayside. This means that those of us for whom those things still have significance are more and more frequently disconcerted; it also means that consciousness of those concepts is disappearing and the young people of today may find themselves unable to understand more and more of the literature and life of the past. This is what I fear, anyway.

Well, I’m writing this post partly to celebrate the amazing fact that today my blog’s following reached, and passed, 8000. I’m amazed and grateful! (If it pleases you to do so, you may consider the tour of links throughout this post a kind of happy dance, or pilgrimage…)

So maybe I’m not tilting at verbal windmills alone. Maybe Don and I have 8000+ fellow warriors.

Welcome, all!

Don himself. This image of Don Quixote attacking the windmills is by early-20th-century illustrator G.A. Harker; one of the many sites on which it appears is

Don himself. This image of Don Quixote attacking the windmills is by early-20th-century illustrator G.A. Harker; one of the many sites on which it appears is

“I am not confident about my punctual knowledge.”

Before I tell my current students about my blog, I have to share the newest addition to my collection.

When I read this sentence, I wondered what one needed to know about punctuality. Be there or be square; be there on time or be late. Was he going to talk about the techniques he knew for being on time, or lament that he knew no such techniques?

Or did he lack confidence in his ability to produce knowledge when required, such as on unannounced quizzes? Is he the type who thinks of the correct answer only after he’s handed in the paper, a phenomenon sort of like l’esprit de l’escalier?

No. What we have here is a fairly resourceful, if misleading, coinage, sort of a back formation. Here’s the rest:

“I am not confident about my punctual knowledge. The daughnting task of placing commas and semicolons is a strategic one…”

Punctual and punctuation share the letter cluster “punct,” from punctus, which my old friend Webster’s says is the Latin past participle of pungere, to prick. (Pungent also comes from this root.) They part company with Latin’s evolution into Middle Latin.

Punctual comes from punctualisThe first definition Mr. W. gives for punctual is “relating to or having the nature of a point.” Follows: “being to the point: pointed.” Then, “punctilious.” Then “a. being on time; b. characterized by regular occurrence, as in ‘the punctual small drop of water dripping somewhere in the rear,’ from Thomas Wolfe.” I have actually never heard “punctual” used  in sense 1 or 2—”I like the punctual aspect of a pencil” or “his argument was effective because it was so punctual.” But I, and I suspect most of us, use “punctual” in its fourth Websterian sense; in fact, I can see that minute hand or hour hand touching the pip that marks the hour (etc.); I can see the second hand tripping its way around the outer circle of little pips. Are you punctual? That would mean that when the play begins at 8 p.m., you are in your seat and ready for the show when the little hand is on the 8 and the big hand becomes exactly vertical.

And when I mean “punctilious,” I say “punctilious.” I myself am fairly punctilious when it comes to, um, punctuation.

Webster’s gives a conceptual meaning to lead off its definition of punctuation: “the act of punctuating: the state of being punctuated.” The second definition emphasizes the “art or practice” of inserting punctuation marks. So we go to punctuate and find that its nearest root is the Middle Latin punctuatus, past participle of punctuare, to point, from Latin punctus. To punctuate is “to mark or divide (written matter) with punctuation marks.” Figuratively it can also mean “to break into or interrupt at intervals,” as in Edith Wharton’s “the steady click of her knitting needles punctuated the silence.”

My student didn’t know a word that would mean “punctuation-rules-related” knowledge, so, probably unwittingly, he went all the way to the root of the matter and put his adjectival ending on “punct.” And why not? I found it resourceful. The fact that it was also CONFUSING is the problem, of course.

I will not go on to speculate about the strategic nature of punctuation tasks, but while we’re on the subject of resourcefulness, I think we should take a look at that “daughnting.”

We all have speaking or listening vocabularies that are larger than, or in some ways different from, our writing vocabularies. He has heard the word “daunting,” I am sure. But when it comes to deploying it himself, he is unsure, and this was an in-class impromptu, no SpellCheck available with the click of a mouse. What to do?

He could have substituted a word he knew he could spell. But I like the word “daunting,” and I’ll bet he does too, at least in the sentence he wanted to write. So, my lad, Sound It Out.

The cluster “aunt” should have come to him if he can spell “flaunting,” or “taunting,” or at least “haunting.” But “aunt” as a stand-alone word is less reliable as a pronunciation guide: from New Jersey, I pronounce it just the way I pronounce those insects that swarm all over the picnic blanket, or my kitchen floor on rainy summer days; many people from Connecticut, where we currently are, seem to sigh with pleasure when referring to their ahnts; the British seem to have some regrets, since they also have awnts. Did this variability give my student pause?

Daughtr…caught…taught…now, that’s a consistent pattern. Is THAT how “gh” crept into the relatively uncluttered “daunt”?

He was being punctilious on the basis of the wrong set of points.

“King Lear remorses…”

First of all, Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare. You changed my life!

And now…

One of Shakespeare’s most far-reaching contributions to the English-speaking world was the vigorous stretching of the language. At least as far as written English goes, we can attribute to him numerous coinages and repurposings (although we cannot blame him for the verb “to repurpose”!) that enlarged the lexicon and made it more supple. Working with nuanced ideas by way of fresh images within the constraints of iambic pentameter is bound to stimulate verbal creativity. We can’t know how many of the words he introduced or used in new ways were already current in the spoken language, but the level of sophistication in his usage suggests that he was the prime mover at least most of the time.

So, to celebrate, I offer a verbal repurposing by one of my students.

It lacks true Shakespearean felicity, at least on the surface. Maybe beneath the surface, though?

“Remorse” is, as almost all of us know, a noun. It is not a verb. It comes from Latin via Middle French and then Middle English, and at base it means “the act of biting again.” Webster’s says when we use it we mean “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.”

It’s certainly true that Lear eventually does feel remorse: for valuing the wrong daughters at their word; for abnegating his humanity before abdicating his throne; for being stupid. His “remorse” seems particularly apt when we recall that he himself expressed his disappointment in his daughters as a kind of biting: “sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” he styled it, “to have a thankless child.” Two thankless children = two bites. Regan bites; Goneril bites again. King Lear has remorse.

For my student, though, Lear’s guilt is not a thing but a process: King Lear remorses. But in that structure, considering the word’s origins, wouldn’t we have to interpret the statement to mean that LEAR bites again? He doesn’t experience a thing, a re-biting; he bites.

This is not how my student used it; she wrote that he remorses over how badly things have turned out.

But if we do a little speculating, we might be able to make things come out right, after all:

Perhaps like Othello, Lear bites his own “nether lip.” Othello does it in anger (and possibly in frustration and anguish), and in fact the same phrase is used by other, later, writers to denote the same act and motive. (I have always liked this gesture, so suggestive of self-devouring—and Prof. Steve Cohen of Central Connecticut State University demonstrates with great clarity and persuasion the presence of a substantial pattern of images of devouring in Othello, in an article the draft of which he was kind enough to share with me a couple of months ago.) If Lear follows suit as he fumes over the consequences of his folly, we might very well say that he “remorses”!

Unorthodox use of language, but on Shakespeare’s birthday, who am I to complain about that?

“Men are made to look like the ferior in a society and women inferior.”

A classic back-formation!

This was from an essay concerning possible sex discrimination in the firefighter’s test in Connecticut. The sentence that preceded the above is “Before women ever thought about being a policeman or a firefighter, there were the men.”

So this appearance of feriority may be the result of simply being there first. And, in the case of this student’s statement, the men certainly were there: there were the men. Actually she seems to imply that men existed before women (and I suppose if you buy Genesis she is right, briefly anyway, although Genesis doesn’t reveal any desire on Eve’s part to fight fires).

Back-formation is the creation of a new word by removing what looks like a prefix or suffix to get back to the presumed root word. But “ferior” is not a root word. It is a word in Latin, apparently, although “church,” not classical, Latin; it means to rest from labor or observe a holiday, according to several Latin-translation sites (first-person singular present passive indicative of feriō, adds Wiktionary).

A quick Google yields the sobering fact, though, that my student is not alone. Wiktionary, a good place to look for slang, offers this:

ferior (comparativemore ferior, superlativemost ferior)

  1. (slang) From inferior by dropping prefix in-, meaning the opposite of inferior, or excellent, superior.

Urban Dictionary defines it as “of surpassing excellence, the opposite of inferior,” and offers T-shirts and mugs reading “Ferior!”

I’m supplying that link so you can see I’m not kidding, not so you can order something:

I have to admit I like the greeting card with the teacher writing “Ferior” on the board, though!

If men are the ferior, then is Mohammed Ali the most ferior? And considering that my student wrote her statement more than twenty years ago, might I speculate that she is the inventor of this term, with others who heard her thinking “Wow, is THAT the oppposite of ‘inferior’? Cool!”

I can see her now, working on her essay, wondering why women are always treated as men’s inferiors. Who do those men think they are, anyway, or what do they think they are? They think they are the opposite of inferior! “Superior” does not leap to her mind, as it obviously should; instead, she figures out her terminology by imitation of what seems to be a pretty reliable pattern (possible, impossible; finite, infinite; polite, impolite; tolerable, intolerable…). Makes sense, if you never studied Latin and therefore never learned that supra means “above” and infra means “below.” What she mistook for a prefix, in-, is actually part of the root word.

As in the case of men’s seeming feriority, appearances can be deceiving.