A recombobulation of the English language

Aug 18, 2013

You can play your opponent in a tennis match, but can you verse them? Surprisingly, use of the term verse in reference to challenging another person only became commonplace in the past three decades. 

Host Rina Miller and Professor of English at the University of Michigan, Anne Curzan, discuss this process of reinterpreting words into new forms with altered meanings, called back-forming, on this week’s edition of “That’s What They Say.”

“Back-forming is when we take a word that’s in the language, we reinterpret it, often as having a suffix or a prefix, and then we create a new word,” Anne Curzan explains.

Televise or laze are prime examples of this process, as these words were created for convenient use from their parent words, television and lazy, respectively. Some of these back-forms are actually pretty old and not particularly liked, such as the back-form enthuse, derived from the root enthusiasm. One back-form whose likeness will probably go undisputed, however, is the word recombobulation, as Anne Curzan explains.

“In 2008, the American Dialect Society voted on the words of the year, and the word that won the most creative word of the year was the compound "recombobulation area." The recombobulation area is at the Milwaukee airport, and it is the area after you go through security where you can recombobulate. You can put your shoes back on, you can put your belt back on…” says Curzan.

Recombobulation area is not only creative, but according to Anne Curzan, also the ultimate back-formed verb. “You have to take discombobulate, take off the dis to form combobulate, and then put on a new prefix on it to form recombobulate."

After learning about the many back-forms in the English language, you may need to recombobulate as well.

-Austin Davis, Michigan Radio Newsroom