15 June 2006
I really enjoyed my historical linguistics class in college. It was so fascinating to learn the methods by which words have changed through history – and are still changing today! One of the methods is called “back formation.” The example I always remember is pease. You know that nursery rhyme,
Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot,
Nine days old.
You probably always wondered how “pease” was related to “peas” or even “pea.” As it turns out, “pease” used to be the singular formation of the word, but because so many words that end with the /z/ sound are plural, people started viewing “pease” as a plural, and eventually started using “pea” as the singular. That’s an example of back formation.
Come to think of it, that’s the only example I remember… ( “An other” going to “another” is – um, another! – example of historical change, but I forget the name of that method.)
And here’s why I bring it up. The other day at dinner, Z-boy asked: “What does appointed mean?” Jonski Papa gave an example along the lines of “when you pick someone to represent you”.
“Oh” Z-boy replied. “Because I thought it was the opposite of disappointed.”
Back formation at work!