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Chris -- 2015-05-30

#1 2009-12-06 21:23:56

From: Victoria, BC
Registered: 2007-08-28
Posts: 2227

gravel << grovel and lost radicals

Back-formations are words that are coined from existing words by reversing the rules of word formation. The rules are often reversed in funny and inaccurate ways. A classic example is the word “pea,” which was originally the mass noun “pease,” as we see in the children’s rhyme “pease porridge hot.” Speakers of English who mistook “pease” for a common plural gave us the faux-singular “pea” when they removed the “s.”

Back-forming can recover lost radicals, bound morphemes that have gone missing from everyday speech after they were used to build compounds. Take the verb “cobble,” for example. Lexicographers find only “cobbler” in the oldest literature. We probably cobbled together the modern “cobble” by back-forming “cobbler.” In this case we may actually have restored a lost radical. In other cases, however, our zeal to recover the lost radical leads us astray. I have heard the word “gruntled,” for instance, used as the opposite of “disgruntled.” The “dis-“ of “disgruntle,” however, is not the antonym-forming “dis-“ but the intensive “dis-.” Verbal forms of “gruntle” meaning disgruntle were still part of English in the late nineteenth century. Recovering a word so recently lost is a plus, but flipping its meaning is a big negative.

We can also invent radicals that never existed when we do back-formations. A good example is in the previous paragraph. I used the verb “back-form,” but “back-form” is not the source of the noun “back-formation.” The noun came first and we removed the noun ending to invent the companion verb–a verb so new, by the way, that most dictionaries do not recognize it. The same story–fresh verbs crafted from old nouns–holds for “edit” (from “editor”), “euthanize” (from “euthanasia”) and “burgle” (from “burglar”). You will find several of these back-formations in the hilarious New Yorker piece by Jack Winter, “How I Met My Wife.” ( … t-my-wife/ ).

One of my favorite English back-formations is the old word “grovel.” Both Shakespeare and Milton employed the verb. But when we push back behind the Renaissance into the English of the Middle Ages, what we find is not the verb “grovel” but the adjective “groof (or grufe).” To be groof meant to be prone and face downward. The adjective hung around in standard English until the seventeenth century, even later in some English dialects, and then died out. But before it expired it left behind a child that would outlive it.

The begetting of “grovel” happened in two steps. The adjective “groof” was first turned into an adverb using the suffix “-ling,” a common lexical trick in Middle English. We see this old trick at work in English words such as “darkling” and “headlong” (which used to be “headling”). The adverb “groofling” meant to take some action in a prostrate position. Once the adverb became popular, some hearers became confused about whether it was an adverb or an adjective. When Mallory writes, for example, in the Le Morte d’Arthur that “Sir Lancelot leaped upon him, and pulled him groveling down,” the word “groveling” is probably an adverb: it specifies how Lancelot pulled his opponent down. But it could also be an adjective modifying “him.” If “groveling” was heard an adjective, then the hearer would naturally assume that the “-ing” ending marked the present participle of the verb “grovel.” By this line of false reasoning, built on false assumptions about parts of speech and how a word should be divided, a new verb was born.

Our century has added an eggcorn chapter to “grovel’s” ongoing comedy of errors. Some modern writers, unfamiliar with the slightly archaic “grovel,” assume that falling prostrate has something to do with putting one’s face into the gravel. I found about twenty examples of this switch on the web. Four of them:

Web fiction: “Do you think…that your brother was so important that I would do all this? That I so desperately needed a new goblin to gravel before me?”

Comment on Youtube video: “Hawaiians [would] have to gravel before I’d ever go over there and defend them.”

More web fiction: “Had I forgotten to gravel at his feet when he entered the apartment”

Post on an Asian advice board: “Did he also expect you to gravel at his mother’s feet? ”

Another example was briefly noted in this forum at … p?pid=1862

Last edited by kem (2009-12-07 12:56:39)



#2 2009-12-20 17:53:14

David Bird
From: Montréal, QC
Registered: 2009-07-28
Posts: 1266

Re: gravel << grovel and lost radicals

Allow me to gravel headling before another of your deep-time posts, Kem. Delicious, even from down here.

Just wanted to add to this with a note on a further evolution of “headlong” that doesn’t perhaps merit its own post. There are at least the magic 10 instances of people plunging “head along” (instead of leaving it behind?) into something. The following two examples are from India:

They plunge head along into the oncoming traffic
( … 820300.htm)

So just don’t dive head along without stopping to think for a moment.
( … 713AAMYg9b)

And to note that darkling was also back-formed to “darkle”, a word that Fowler called spurious and I think splendid.



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