A brief exchange on Judge Judy the other day caught my ear and set me off on an illuminating web search.
It seems that after Judy corrected a plaintiff who used the word “conversate”, she was inundated with emails pointing out that “conversate” is in the Merriam Webster dictionary and she was wrong to object to its use.
A quick Google led to an hour or so wandering through multiple sites running the gamut from learned exchanges between linguists and grammarians about the role of back-formations in the development of language to politically-charged discussions about Ebonics as a legitimate field of study.
Some things I learned along the way:
- A back-formation occurs when a new word is formed by removing a suffix from an earlier word. An example – “donation” entered the language in the 15th century. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the verb “donate” came into use.
- The vegetable “pea” is a back-formation of “pease” as in “Pease porridge hot; pease porridge cold”.
- “Orientate” is frowned upon in American English, but commonly used in Britain. By the way, it actually means “to face or turn to the east.
- Kids now use “versus” as a verb, as in “The Leafs are versing the Hawks tonight.”
- “Third” started life as “thurd”.
- A favourite pet peeve of mine – “axe” instead of “ask” - is a legitimate pronunciation in the American south.
- It’s great that English continues to evolve, but sometimes it looks and feels like revolution.
- I won’t conversate anytime soon, but maybe I’ll be a bit more tolerant of those who do.