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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2002-11-6)

I thought it might be interesting in this column to look at some back-formations. These are words that are made from others that are “wrongly or humorously taken to be derivatives”. The example in The Chambers Dictionary is a little obscure: it appears that there is an adverb “sideling” that means “sideways, with a slope”, and from it has been formed the entirely imaginary verb “to sidle”, meaning “to edge along sideways.” “Sidle” is now firmly established in our vocabulary and owes its existence to the false belief that “sideling” is a present participle like “running”; therefore it must be the present participle of something. So there must be a verb “to sidle”.

Quite a different route led us to the word “liaise”, meaning “to form a link with.” This imaginary word is a back-formation from “liaison”, a “union” or “connection.”

The origin here is French. There is a French verb “lier”, pronounced “lee-ay”, and it means “to bind.” It produced a little family of derivatives, “lien”, “liage” and “liaison”, all of them having the connotation of a bond or connection of some kind. “Lien” made its way into the English lexicon as a legal term and “liaison” is firmly established in English. The military term “liaison officer” probably had a lot to do with its general acceptance.

But once it was accepted, a verb became necessary to describe what happens when a liaison is established and the imaginary word “liaise” came into being. It’s quite common in business terminology: “the committee will liaise with management at frequent intervals.” It’s a little clumsy and awkward to spell but it serves its purpose well enough and it’s difficult to think of an exact English substitute.

Another example is a matter of pronunciation, the only thing that distinguishes the word and its meaning from the identically-spelt word and its meaning. The word is “process”. We are all familiar with the noun: Chambers defines it as (among other things) “a state of being in progress”. We pronounce it with the stress on the first syllable, “PROcess”.

We can also use it as a verb: we process information, say, or cheese.

But what if we want to use it to mean “take part in a procession”, as in “The President and his retinue processed up Adderley Street towards Parliament”? To explain this we have to have another look at Latin. “Procession” is actually derived from the Latin word “procedo”, to “advance, come forth, come out in public.” Our English word “proceed” is obviously derived from this word and “proceed” is actually what the President did in our example.

But it doesn’t sound quite right; it lacks the suggestion of pomp and circumstance. So we use a back-formation from “procession” and create “proCESS”, with the stress on the second syllable to distinguish it from the other word with the same spelling. It’s not a word I like much; I would prefer the President “to ride in procession up Adderley Street”, but that takes up quite a lot more room. So we’d better get used to “proCESSing” on formal occasions. After you, Mr President.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online




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