No word for "retroactive loss of modifier redundancy"?

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William Germano, "What are books good for?", The Chronicle Review, 9/26/2010:

Maybe we need to redefine, or undefine, our terms. I'm struck by the fact that the designation "scholarly book," to name one relevant category, is in itself a back formation, like "acoustic guitar." Books began as works of great seriousness, mapping out the religious and legal dimensions of culture. In a sense, books were always scholarly. Who could produce them but serious people? Who had the linguistic training to decode them? [emphasis added]

Prof. Germano seems to be using the term back formation to mean "a modified term where the modifier was originally redundant but has come to have meaningful discriminative content". This is an interesting concept for which a term is certainly needed. But I'm sorry, Prof. Germano, back formation is already taken.

The OED defines back formation as "The formation of what looks like a root-word from an already existing word which might be (but is not) a derivative of the former", with citations from 1889:

1889 N.E.D., Burgle..A back-formation from Burglar. 1907 Athenæum 5 Jan. 7/3 'Narration' is fifteenth century, 'narrative'..and 'narrator' as early as Bacon, so that, like many verbs of the same termination, it [sc. 'narrate'] may have been a back-formation. 1926 FOWLER Mod. Eng. Usage 516/1 Scavenger, n., is the origin, in English, from which to scavenge is a back-formation, the normal verb being to scavenger.

As the Wikipedia article explains in more detail, that 1889 citation is to Sir James Murray's entry for burgle in the B fascicle of the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, as the OED was then called. As of 1889, the concept to which Murray gave the name "back-formation" was an idea in need of a label, just as Germano's concept of "retroactive loss of modifier redundancy" is now. But Murray got there first, and in such matters, squatter's rights are powerful, especially if the squatter edits the OED.

Of course, to really establish a case of lexicographical homesteading, the rest of the culture needs to take up the coinage and use it. That has certainly happened with back formation, which is now not only the standard term among linguists for cases like the formation of burgle from burglar, but is also widely used in popular writing about language. William Safire used the term 28 times in his New York Times columns, for example, starting in 1979. And a quick Google Books search turns up uses in works with titles like The Funny Side of English and The life of language: the fascinating ways that words are born, live and die.

So Prof. Germano needs to stake out some unoccupied lexicographical territory for the meaning "retroactive loss of modifier redundancy". I'm not very good as this phrase-making business — maybe Geoff Pullum can help him out.

Then again, it's possible that by calling "scholarly book" "a back formation" he just meant that it was "a newly coined phrase". That would be a much less interesting mistake.



71 Comments

  1. James said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 7:06 am

    No, he surely doesn't mean 'newly coined phrase', since his other example ('acoustic guitar') also satisfies the condition of having lost its original modifier redundancy. It would be too much of a coincidence if he only meant 'newly coined phrase'.
    Why are you thinking of the modifier redundancy loss as retroactive, though?

    [(myl) I originally thought of "historical loss of…" or just "loss of…". But I understood Germano to be talking about the fact that a work that was originally just a book comes to be called a "scholarly book", and that this change is in some sense a retroactive one.

    After all, if James Taylor plays a guitar fabricated in 1850 his performance would still be billed as "acoustic guitar", right? ]

  2. Yomikoma said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 7:09 am

    Retronym. It has a wikipedia page and everything.

    [(myl) Wow. You're absolutely right. And it's in the OED as well:

    "A neologism created for an existing object or concept because the exact meaning of the original term used for it has become ambiguous (usually as a result of a new development, technological advance, etc.).
    A retronym typically consists of the original term combined with a modifying word."

    This suggests that Prof. Germano may have just gotten his lexical-access wires crossed, so to speak, and came up with back formation when he meant to fetch retronym. That would be a classic Fay-Cutler malapropism. It's a bit surprising that the editors at the Chronicle Review didn't catch it.]

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  4. Tom Saylor said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 8:12 am

    The sentence "I'm sorry, Prof. Germano, *back formation* is already taken" strikes me as an expression of prescriptivism–uncharacteristically polite prescriptivism, but prescriptivism nonetheless. The notion that a term's denotation is somehow fixed by its original usage and can't or shouldn't be casually extended in popular usage is, at bottom, prescriptivist.

    [(myl) The point here is that the meaning of words is determined by their usage — by Horace's norma loquendi — not by abstract logic or authoritative fiat. If many others began to use back formation to mean "retronym", then the meaning of the term would change. To insist that anyone can use any combination of words at any time to mean anything that they like isn't "descriptivism", it's quite the opposite.]

  5. pj said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 8:21 am

    If 'back formation' does become used for 'retronym', we'll need a retronym like 'non-retronymic back formation'.

  6. the next Prescott Niles said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 8:30 am

    Just read the linked Fay-Cutler article, and it looks like a classic Fay-Cutler malapropism for retronym would be something more like retrofit (n.) or reprimand—a word of the same syntactic category as the target with the same stress pattern, a lot of left-to-right phonemic similarities, etc. Did you mean to fetch the name of some other kind of malapropism?

    [(myl) I think that we can stretch the definition to include substitution of a phrase based on morphological similarity (e.g. back for retro. As I understand the situation, Fay and Cutler were interested in cases where one word is substituted for another not through ignorance — as in the case of Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop — but as a sort of slip of the brain, where a speaker means to use one word and instead comes out with another, which they instantly recognize as wrong if they notice the substitution. It's true, as Fay and Cutler observe, that these substitutions very often involve metrical and phonological similarity, as well as local string-wise associations — "Lizst's second Hungarian restaurant" instead of "Lizst's second Hungarian rhapsody". But there are other dimensions of similarity that can result in lexical-access confusion.]

  7. Kapitano said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 8:32 am

    @Tom Saylor: That's not what Mr Liebermann is saying. Unless you think noting the meaning of a word is the same as trying to ossify it.

    @Everyone else: Did the term 'scholarly book' exist before there were non-scholarly books? I rather doubt that people talked about 'acoustic guitars' before there were electric guitars.

    Incidentally, the term 'metal guitar' has an odd ambiguity – it refers both to an acoustic guitar with a metal body, and to the sound of guitars in heavy metal music.

  8. Nijma said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    Why can't "back formation" apply to phrases as well as words? I understood the meaning immediately without having any prior knowledge of the term. Unlike "retronym" the non-linguist doesn't even have to google it in order to keep reading.

  9. Kimball Kramer said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 8:36 am

    "Retronym" was coined in 1980 by Frank Mankiewicz in the New York Times.

  10. Vicki said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    The assertion that all early books were scholarly is, at best, overlooking important things. However much scholarly analysis has been done on Homer's epics, they are not themselves scholarly books, and they were transcribed (from the oral tradition) 25 centuries ago. Nor is the Bible (Hebrew or Christian) a scholarly work (though, again, there are many scholarly works derived from or discussing it).

    The modern reader may think of Aristophanes or Euripides as scholarly, having met them in school and been expected to write essays about them, but that's distance speaking: they were popular entertainment of the time, as Shakespeare was in his.

  11. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 9:00 am

    Very interesting. I'm always glad to learn a new word. A special kind of retronym is where you mark what should have remained unmarked, like "caffeinated coffee" for "coffee with the caffeine still in it." I'm calling that the "pseudoredundant retronym." What if I referred to my mother as my "biological mother" (even if I'm not adopted)? It would be accurate–she is my biological mother–but misleading.

    That's a little different from talking about "the first president Bush." Not all retronyms are pseudoredundant.

  12. Dick Margulis said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 9:22 am

    Further to Vicki's comment, even if we restrict the scope of Mr. Germano's comment to printed books, it's inaccurate. Within a few years of the introduction of the new technology, all sorts of non-scholarly works were printed, ranging from random ephemera (which we can exclude from the book category) to serial stories published as chapbooks sold by street vendors (Aldus Manutius commissioned the cutting of the first italic type so that he could fit more words on less paper and keep the price down for this trade).

  13. Mr. Fnortner said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    This is a forgivable or forgiven redundancy, unlike traditional redundancies such as close proximity and consensus of opinion that I hope most writers avoid, forgiven because of the apparent need for the term. That said, I don't understand why retronym is the best choice for a name. Retro suggests something old or out of fashion that has become popular again. I'm not sure the -nym in question has been resurrected to currency. Perhaps an alternative route to the best word might be something like neoautologism.

  14. John Walden said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:03 am

    Absolutely. There may have been a brief period of innocence between the invention of moveable print and it occurring to somebody that this would be ideal for slightly or for very pornographic purposes; I dare say one of Caxton's prentrices (one named Hugh Hevener?) stayed behind after work one night to produce something 'Jocund coneyes of Oxenforde" or some other similar freelance endeavour, very shortly after his boss set up shop. Titillation seems to come very shortly after erudite, religious and humorous uses for any new medium. Or before.

  15. John Walden said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    Oops. I went away mid post and came back to finish it without checking if somebody had posted something meanwhile . My 'absolutely' was to agree with the penultimate and pre-pre-penultimate posts to mine. Not that I don't disagree with Mr Fortner.

  16. tpr said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    A neologism created for an existing object or concept because the exact meaning of the original term used for it has become ambiguous

    Perhaps all books were scholarly at some point in the past, but even if every member of a category possesses some feature, that's not enough to conclude that it's a defining feature.

  17. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    Retronyms typically appear when a prototype (most cognitively entrenched, 'usual case' sense of a lexical concept) shifts. What was the usual case is no longer so, due to change in the culture, and the old usual case gets extra marking to flag it as NOT the expected sense.
    Change in prototype happens at the individual cognitive level, and at the community level, and is a function of repeated use–speakers innovate the new marked form and/or hear it from others and as they repeatedly recognize it and/or produce it themselves it affects their own linguistic system, which includes entrenchment patterns. (The same mechanism of usage feedback occurs for syntactic change–the old story of 'only children produce language change' is wrong. Changes happen through usage of speakers at whatever age they use the new term or the constructional extension, as in the case of 'tweet' and the constructions for 'communication verbs' discussed recently.) They happen incrementally usage event by usage event, and the whole process can be fast or slow depending on the speed of the technological or other cultural replacement.

    These retronyms only look like redundancy, to the people who haven't entrenched them. A childhood friend of my husband's came to visit from England and saw signs for 'HOT TEA' which made him snicker at the 'redundancy'. We had to explain that tea is usually served on ice in America. He was from a different community of English speakers, but speakers within the community where the change is spreading but who happen to be behind the leading edge of the change might feel redundancy at first–especially if they are observant like the language log authors and readers.

  18. James said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    John Walden,

    Not that I don't disagree with Mr Fortner.

    Over-negation, or disguised jibe?

  19. D. Sky Onosson said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    @ Suzanne Kemmer

    That's interesting – I wonder if the referent of "TEA-tea" is different for you and your husband's English friend?

  20. tpr said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    I'm not convinced this is about language change at all because I doubt that 'scholarly' was ever part of the definition of 'book' even when all books were scholarly.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    @Nijma

    Why can't "back formation" apply to phrases as well as words?

    It's not about whether or not back formation can apply to phrases or not. The issue is that what he's talking about is not back formation.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    As support for the theory that Germano knew retronym, his example of acoustic guitar is a, or the, classic one.

    As a theory that may never have any support, I suspect the first retronym meant "raw food", though "un-knapped stone" is a possibility.

    @Suzanne Kemmer: I'll take your word and others' that tea is usually served on ice in parts of America, such as the southeastern quarter, but I don't think that's true everywhere. On the other hand, iced tea probably is common enough everywhere in the country that hot tea is a useful phrase in many contexts.

  23. Ellen K. said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:50 am

    @TPR:

    Right, this thread is not about language change. It's about someone using the wrong term for a concept he is trying to discuss.

    I think that we can say that retronym genuinely is the correct name for the concept he is talking about, even he's wrong about "scholarly book" being an example of the concept.

  24. Ellen K. said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    … even if he's wrong… (left out that if)

  25. Tom Saylor said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    @Mark Liberman, who said:

    [myl: The point here is that the meaning of words is determined by their usage — by Horace's *norma loquendi* — not by abstract logic or authoritative fiat. If many others began to use *back formation* to mean "retronym", then the meaning of the term would change. To insist that anyone can use any combination of words at any time to mean anything that they like isn't "descriptivism", it's quite the opposite.]

    Are you saying that "prescriptivist" applies only to those prescriptions/proscriptions that are justified by an appeal to logic or authoritative fiat? Don't prescriptivists sometimes justify their prescriptions/proscriptions on the basis of *descriptive* accounts of how the term was originally used? I think many prescriptivists would agree that the meanings of words are determined by their usage–they are to that extent descriptivists–it's just that they prescribe the use of a given term in one of its senses and proscribe its use in another sense. Seems to me that that's what you're doing here. I don't see that it matters how widespread the proscribed usage is–the proscription is still prescriptivist in nature.

    I am, by the way, in sympathy with you on this. I think it would be a pity if lots of people started using "back formation" in the sense in which Professor Germano uses it (just as I think it's a pity that lots of people now use "passive verb" in something other than its original sense). That, I readily acknowledge, is a prescriptivist sentiment.

    [(myl) For discussion, please see "Prescriptivist science", 4/30/2008, and "'Everything is Correct' vs. 'Nothing is Relevant'", 1/26/2005.]

  26. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 11:13 am

    Appeals to a norma loquendi of the past, or an etymological origin, is not quite the same thing as appeal to a more or less current norm. The problem with appealing to some practice of the past to rule current usage is that past practices are typically varied rather than uniform. Defining how a term was "originally" used is often very tricky.

  27. John McIntyre said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    I think that calling all early printed books "scholarly" has some merit, because in the fifteenth century most of the people who would know how to read them were, in effect, scholars. The adjective could describe the audience, like "popular book," as well as the contents.

  28. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    @Jonathan Mayhew, who wrote: "The problem with appealing to some practice of the past to rule current usage is that past practices are typically varied rather than uniform": Well, that's a problem, but I wouldn't say it's the problem. The problem, as I see it, is that there's no reason to consider past practices as normative, no matter how uniform they may have been.

    (But I agree with your main point.)

  29. John Walden said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 12:06 pm

    @James. Over-negation and I didn't even get Mr Fnortner's name right. Not my day.

    This not being able to edit posts is tuogh fro amatuer rwiters.

  30. Dick Margulis said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

    @John Wladen: tough for porfetionals two.

  31. john riemann soong said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    "(The same mechanism of usage feedback occurs for syntactic change–the old story of 'only children produce language change' is wrong. Changes happen through usage of speakers at whatever age they use the new term or the constructional extension, as in the case of 'tweet' and the constructions for 'communication verbs' discussed recently.) "

    Really? I think adults can make superficial changes to the language — add vocabulary, make back-formations and other "non-intensive" changes. It's a stretch to imagine that adults /invented/ "where you at" (as opposed to picking it up); I think this is something only a child can do. It must be children that come up with the innovations that result in the Great Vowel Shift, though adults can /join/ the innovation if they want to be hip or happening.

  32. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

    @Ran Ari-Gur. Yes, good correction. Even a consistent use in the past (but when is the past?) does not mean usage can't change.

  33. marie-lucie said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

    Nijma: Why can't "back formation" apply to phrases as well as words? I understood the meaning immediately without having any prior knowledge of the term.

    I think that everyone understood the meaning in context, but those familiar with the term (which has a definition in linguistics) knew that it was not the right term at all. Back formation makes a new word from an existing word by chopping off what is or appears to be an affix (as in <peddle from pedlar interpreted as peddle-er). Obviously this is not a process that can apply to phrases, only to individual words.

    What the author referred to here was the addition of a word to an existing word (eg from plain guitar to acoustic guitar) in order to make a distinction that did not exist earlier (eg when there was only one kind of guitar). When electric guitars appeared, the addition of electric was needed to refer to them, while the traditional type of guitar was simply guitar, but acoustic guitar is a "retronym" because it is not used to indicate something new, but to refer to the older, original item.

    Unlike "retronym" the non-linguist doesn't even have to google it in order to keep reading.

    It is not only the non-linguist who is unfamiliar with retronym: it was new to me, and even Mark Liberman had never heard of it.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    –the old story of 'only children produce language change' is wrong, etc

    In between children and adults there are teen-agers. I think that the role of that age-group in language change is underestimated.

  35. Robert said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 1:51 pm

    There are a few retronyms in maths, and probably other sciences, where the original definition of some concept turned out to be just a special case of something more useful – Euclidean geometry, for instance.

    Unlike acoustic guitar and similar common terms, there's often a traceable act of name invention for these retronyms. Occasionally, too, the inventors go the other way, and label the generic term with an adjective, leaving the special case unmarked, which stretches the normal logic of the language.

  36. Mr. Fnortner said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 3:43 pm

    I may have missed it, but no one seems to have offered an example of a word backformed from a multi-word phrase. Could these two be examples of the type: Mickey from Mickey Finn, and semi from semi trailer?

  37. John said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 4:37 pm

    First, the term in question, scholarly book, is not what we call this thing, because lots of ancient books were literary, probably most of them, and so the adjective is needed.

    Second, retronym is a chimeric monstrosity (redundant?), mixing Latin retr- and Greek -onym (NB not -nym). I don't care what wiki says.

    So how about palinonym (named again)?

  38. The Ridger said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 5:15 pm

    So what if it mixes Latin and Greek? So do many words in English. And the minute you slap an English affix on even a pure word it becomes chimeric. I'm not going to stop saying "automobiles" just because it's a "monstrosity" in some people's opinions, and neither, I'll bet, are you.

  39. Ralph Hickok said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

    Of course, in sports we have "natural turf," as opposed to artificial turf

  40. John said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

    @The Ridger: I don't say automobile, but I do say heterosexual.

    That doesn't mean I want to contribute to the creation of more chimeric forms. And there's a difference between an English affix on a word and a pseudo-learned combination of Latin and Greek.

    Oh, and try to drum up a sense of humor too. :-)

  41. D. Sky Onosson said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    @ Mr. Fnortner:

    semi from semi-trailer would be an example of clipping, I believe.

  42. Army1987 said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

    "a chimeric monstrosity mixing Latin and Greek"
    Like "television"?

  43. Joyce Melton said,

    October 9, 2010 @ 11:15 pm

    I like retrodundant and retrodundancy for the modifier and the quality of the modifier in a retronym. And the process could be retrologizing (or retrologising if you're right-pondian.)

  44. Mark F. said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 12:34 am

    For one phrase to be a backformation of another, the smaller phrase would have to be recognizable as deriving from the larger one, in a way that arose from a misinterpretation of how the larger phrase originally arose. Maybe a phrase could become a well-known fixed phrase, and then be reanalyzed so that a non-constituent substring is interpreted as a constituent, with the other words then removed to change the meaning in a sensible way. But I can't think of an example.

  45. Dave said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 1:59 am

    @John: I think `palinonym' is taken, for `refudiate' and the like.

  46. John Walden said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 2:56 am

    Mark F: "the smaller phrase would have to be recognizable as deriving from the larger one, in a way that arose from a misinterpretation of how the larger phrase originally arose"

    Arose by any other name?

  47. john riemann soong said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 5:19 am

    marie-lucie: I think teenagers reinforce existing trends in language change, rather than initiate it. Although they tend to be more potent reinforcers than adults, since identifying with in-groups is a big thing for them.

  48. Tom Saylor said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    @ myl

    Thanks for pointing me to those interesting posts, but I have to say I don't find that either one of them clearly delineates a distinction in principle between the sort of thing you're doing in this post and the sort of thing done by the prescriptivist who says that *beg the question* should not be used to mean "raise the question" because that's not what the expression originally meant and then goes on to adduce some sort of lexicographical evidence for the descriptive claim about the expression's original meaning.

    I find, in general, that Language Log linguists get pretty prescriptivist when it comes to preserving the meanings of linguistic terms. That's not a criticism–I'm just sayin'.

    I do find it odd, though, that Language Log linguists (well, GKP, anyway) sometimes talk as if empirical evidence can prove that prescriptivists are in certain instances just *wrong* about the language. As far as I can see, there's nothing for the prescriptivist, qua prescriptivist, to be wrong about. The prescriptivist injunction against using pronouns with possessive antecedents is not *disproven* by the observation that such usage is widespread any more than the Seventh Commandment is *disproven* by the observation that many people commit adultery.

  49. marie-lucie said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    Language Log linguists get pretty prescriptivist when it comes to preserving the meanings of linguistic terms.

    Are scientists prescriptivist in preserving the meanings of technical terms in their fields? If a science journalist calls Venus a "star" rather than a "planet", or confuses a "vein" with an "artery", is an astronomer or anatomist at fault in pointing out the error, rather than thinking that the definitions of these terms are just changing with the times and the public can decide what they mean? Of course, such obvious cases are too extreme to be realistic, since most people have learned the differences between these common words in school, but the need for precision is just as needed in linguistics as in other fields.

    Personally I am not against changing confusing terms which have come into wider use with other meanings in a related field – the term "passive voice" has become very widespread and the "voice" part, never a very obvious concept, is extremely confusing to the public, because of its more common (and more readily understandable) use in literary or stylistic contexts (unfortunately, there is no obvious alternative to the time-honoured technical term). The case about "back formation" in the quotation above is not the same: in using it to describe a linguistic phenomenon, the author appeared to the uninitiated to be fully familiar with both the form and meaning of a technical linguistic term which is not widely known. It is no gift to readers outside any discipline to let them think that they have learned a new term from a person who appears to be an authority when the authority in question misunderstood the technical meaning of the term.

  50. Ellen K. said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    Tom Saylor, the difference is that the prescriptivist who says "begs the question" doesn't mean "raises the question" because it means something else is ignoring widespread usage, whereas Mark Liberman here is reporting usage — that "back formation" is just not used to mean what William Germano used it to mean.

    No, saying "So Prof. Germano needs to stake out some unoccupied lexicographical territory for the meaning "retroactive loss of modifier redundancy" isn't descriptivism. But does flow from a descriptivist way of looking at language.

  51. Tom Saylor said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    @ Marie-Lucie, who asked:

    "Are scientists prescriptivist in preserving the meanings of technical terms in their fields?"

    I would say that scientists certainly are prescriptivist insofar as they say term "X" should be used only to refer to such and such, never to refer to so and so. But that's easy for me to say because, unlike some linguists, I don't use "prescriptivist" as a term of reproach.

  52. Tom Saylor said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    @ EllenK, who said"

    "the difference is that the prescriptivist who says "begs the question" doesn't mean "raises the question" because it means something else is ignoring widespread usage, whereas Mark Liberman here is reporting usage"

    I don't think it can be assumed that such a prescriptivist is ignoring widespread usage. In fact, I think most people who proscribe that use of "beg the question" are well aware that the proscribed usage is widespread. In saying that the expression *shouldn't* be used in a certain way, they're not claiming or implying that the expression *isn't* used in that way, so they can't really be "wrong about language" in the way that a descriptivist can be wrong about language.

  53. marie-lucie said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    If you have read GKP amd MYL regularly, you should know that there are cases where they consider that "prescription" is good – technical terms are an instance, because of the need for precision within the field, so that practitioners know exactly what they are talking about. This is true whether the field is a prestigious science or a sport. "Prescriptivism" on the other hand is an attitude that insists on everyone observing some rules or usages that go against the majority usage of the general population of speakers, often with dubious logical or historical justification. So there is no contradiction in linguists' insistence that "passive voice" or "back formation" have a definite meaning describing certain linguistic phenomena, but that "split infinitives" or "stranded prepositions" are not and have never been forbidden by English syntax (they are not on a par with, for instance, the rule inverting the auxiliary and the subject noun phrase in order to form yes-no questions, which does not need to be taught to English speakers as it is part of their internalized grammar).

  54. George said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    marie-lucie: If you are not a teacher, you missed your calling. If you are a teacher, I am certain that you are a good one. Your explanation of Mr. Germano's mistaken meaning is exceptionally clear and understandable.

  55. Rubrick said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    @Ellen K: '…"back formation" is just not used to mean what William Germano used it to mean.'

    A rather deliciously self-refuting statement, that. It clearly is used to mean what Germano used it to mean. The only question is whether it is used that way by people other than Germano.

    [(myl) I tried pretty hard to find other examples, and failed to find even one. It wouldn't surprise me if someone with better Google-fu or more time on their hands could find an example or two, but let's say at least that it's very, very rare. Specifically, I think it's rare enough that Germano's slip was probably an independent event.

    This is strikingly different from the situation with respect to "beg the question", where I found that out of 20 examples from the NYT, 15 meant "raise the question", 4 were complaints about people misusing the phrase, and only 1 was the traditional petitio principii sense.]

  56. Mr Punch said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 8:54 pm

    "First World War" is a retronym; "Second World War" isn't. What about the Hundred Years' War? It certainly wasn't called that from its start.

  57. marie-lucie said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    George: thank you for the compliments. I was teaching introductory linguistics (among other things) until recently (I am now officially retired).

  58. Ellen K. said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    No, Rubrick, not a self-refuting statement, because there's a difference between "not" and "never". "Not" can be used for generalizations, thus, my statement does allow for this single exception.

    Though, any way about it, I think we can all understand that I'm talking about if it's used by other people, since we all know Germano did use it that way.

  59. Mark F. said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    When a technical term escapes into the wild, its meaning can drift pretty quickly. I think Germano's mistake is a pretty good example of how that starts.

  60. Grep Agni said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    Among my college friends, retronym was used for acronyms for which a target word was selected and a phrase found to fit that word. The PATRIOT act is a prime example. Apparently these should be called backronyms. I'll have to amend my lexicon.

  61. KevinM said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    The professor was awfully chalant in his use of the terminology.

  62. Jens Fiederer said,

    October 11, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

    Hugh Hevener isn't even required. I read in a joke anthology that the first edition of Caxton's Aesop's Fables had some space left after the fables that was filled with a (mildly) dirty joke, about a widow whose maid warned her that a man courting the widow was so lusty his previous wife died thereof – and the window responded that as this life was a vale of tears she would not much mind dying.

  63. Barrett Watten said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 8:39 am

    I've searched this interesting discussion for the German *Nachträglichkeit*, a term from psychoanalysis frequently employed in critical theory meaning "retrospective determination." Something that appears to have caused a phenomenon retrospectively is an instance of *Nachträglichkeit*. This is where the term "back formation" used in the speech community William Germano is part of comes from–evidently not the speech community of linguists, even though they are down the hall from many critical theorists.

  64. marie-lucie said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    Barrett Walden: very interesting! It does happen that a term is used differently in two technical fields. Germano may have used a psychoanalytic term for something out of its own field, causing linguists to think that he had misunderstood the linguistic term when he may have extended the meaning of the psychoanalytical term. It does not mean that the linguists were wrong though, since Germano is not a psychoanalyst (he teaches English literature) and was discussing elements of language.

  65. latinist said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    1. Grep Agni: I think I've heard that sort of thing called a "backronym." But not often

    2. Just a data point: I'm not a linguist, but I was familiar with the term "retronym." I think the example I first described as one was "vinyl" for records. Or possibly "snail mail."

    3. As to the question of whether all books were once scholarly, I don't really have an opinion, but I'm surprised that anybody thinks evidence from the early days of *printing* is relevant. By the time the printing press arrived, books (even if we take "book" to mean "codex" as opposed to scrolls, etc.) had been around well over a millenium, plenty of time for the unscholarly rot to set in.

  66. latinist said,

    October 12, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    Whoops. I just saw that Grep Agni had already noted my point 1. Not sure how I missed that the first time.

  67. maidhc said,

    October 14, 2010 @ 4:22 am

    Another example: the introduction of Reduced Instruction Set Computers (RISC) caused the former generation of computers, once referred to as "computers", become reclassified as Complex Instruction Set Computers (CISC).

  68. Barrett Watten said,

    October 16, 2010 @ 10:20 pm

    Very precisely, Germano was using a psychoanalytic term in a nonpsychoanalytic way, in order to constitute a speech community of those "in the know" re the term. Not only was he being ironic, he was being imprecise: an "acoustic guitar" is a nonpsychoanalytic "back formation" in the sense that one only needs to add "acoustic" *after* the invention of electric guitar. But "scholarly book" on analogy would necessitate that all books were once scholarly. Well, if all books were the Gutenberg Bible that might be true, but you would have to prove it. So—therein lies the usage problem, not in faulty linguistic terminology. To say "scholarly books" are a "back formation" comes with a knowing wink to those critical theorists who know what the term means—and to whom Germano sells plenty of books which depend on it.

  69. Ellen K. said,

    October 18, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    Are you saying "back formation" is a psychoanalyctic term, in addition to being a linguistic term and that he was using in in the psychoanalyctic way, outside the psychoanalytic context?

    A look in several dictionaries shows not other definition other than the linguistic one discussed in this thread, which, as noted, means something different than what he's talking about.

  70. scientiae said,

    August 12, 2011 @ 12:24 am

    For completeness please see my corrigenda.

    @D. Sky Onosson (October 9, 2010), commenting @Suzanne Kemmer
    That's interesting – I wonder if the referent of "TEA-tea" is different for you and your husband's English friend?
    A case of Contrastive focus reduplication (also lexical cloning, the double construction)!

    @John (October 9):
    … retronym is a chimeric monstrosity (redundant?), mixing Latin retr- [1] and Greek -onym (NB not -nym). I don't care what wiki says.
    So how about palinonym (named again)?
    @Dave (October 10): commenting @John: I think `palinonym' [2] is taken, for `refudiate' and the like.

    Notes:
    [1] retrō, adverb backwards, behind; back again, conversely
    [©1994, Revised 2005 Latin Desk Dictionary, p.164.]

    [2] Firstly, the (dysneologistic) portmanteau "refudiate" is unnecessary, as it is semantically hyponymous with its paronymic repudiate, cf. definition 3 @ dictionary.com

    Secondly, palinonym has an established meaning:
    palin- Combining form meaning backward or repetitive.
    [Arthur S. Rebur (1985), Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, p.510.], also from the same page:

    palilalia A condition in which the patient continuously repeats words and phrases. »echolalia.
    palingraphia An obscure term for the more common »mirror writing.
    palinlexia Reading backwards. There are two forms, one in which a sentence is read with the word order reversed, the other where each word is read with letter order reversed. »dyslexia.
    palinphrasia Pathologically frequent repetition of particular words or phrases during speech.

    Also:
    ΠΆΛΙΝ, Adverb, back, backwards; … 2. πάλιν also implies opposition, on the contrary, reversely … II. of Time, again, once more, anew.
    [©1891 Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon (Abridged), Clarendon Oxford, p.514.]

    @marie-lucie (October 10)
    +1

    @KevinM (October 11):
    The professor was awfully chalant in his use of the terminology.
    :D

    @Barrett Watten (October 12):
    The existing, expanded (by Hall) definition for Nachträglichkeit might be further expanded, but it is far less intuitive than retronym.

    @Barrett Watten (October 16):
    Very precisely, Germano was using a psychoanalytic term in a nonpsychoanalytic way, …
    (Even if your comment was meant in jest :) in every dictionary that I have found, "back formation" is not a psychoanalytic phrase. The closest term is backward association, defined as: "a connection between an item on a list in a serial learning task and an item or items that preceded it. …".
    [Arthur S. Rebur (1985), Penguin Dictionary of Psychology, p57.]

    Or, possibly the semantically closer concept of backward masking: "A general term in the study of perception for any process whereby a detectable or recognizable stimulus (called the target) is made difficult or impossible to detect or recognize by the presentation of a second stimulus (the masker) in close [sic] temporal or spatial [and we may interpolate semantic?] proximity to it. Masking may occur in any sensory system; e.g. it may be: auditory, when an above-threshold tone is masked by the introduction of a second tone; visual, when a recognizable form is rendered unrecognizable by introducing an overlapping figure; olfactory, when one odor is covered by another; etc. Masking may also be produced by several temporal arrangements of the target and masker. In simultaneous masking the two are presented together; in backward masking the masker is is presented some (usually very short) time after the target; in forward masking the order of presentation is reversed. »metacontrast, which refers to visual masking when the target and masker are spatially separated."
    [Ibidem, p.419.]

    So, the closest phenomenon listed (to what Germano did to the phrase "back formation") would be to describe the perception of the old (retronymic) phrase as "masked", as by a metacontrasted, backward masking neologistic palinonym that re-purposed (and sublated) the existing phrase. Hardly useful. (But, please see below.)

    @Mr. Fnortner, (October 9):
    This is a forgivable or forgiven redundancy, unlike traditional redundancies such as close proximity and consensus of opinion that I hope most writers avoid, forgiven because of the apparent need for the term. That said, I don't understand why retronym is the best choice for a name. Retro suggests something old or out of fashion that has become popular again. I'm not sure the -nym in question has been resurrected to currency. Perhaps an alternative route to the best word might be something like neoautologism.
    +
    @Joyce Melton (October 9):
    I like retrodundant and retrodundancy for the modifier and the quality of the modifier in a retronym. And the process could be retrologizing (or retrologising if you're right-pondian.)

    retractō, verb undertake anew; draw back, be reluctant; reconsider; withdraw
    [©1994, Revised 2005 Latin Desk Dictionary, p.163.]

    Accordingly, retractonym would be most correct, concise and available term; it would avoid any confusion (should there be any) with retronyms and back-formations.

    :)

  71. Cordell said,

    May 17, 2013 @ 1:25 am

    Time to stoke a dormant fire…

    For the phenomenon of "plain rice" and "vanilla sex" and "acoustic guitar" — your "retroactive loss of modifier redundancy" — I tender for consideration "specified ex-normative".

    Or ram together "erst" in backwards for "vanillerst", or concoct a beastly portmanteau in someone else's language with "ancienorme"!

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