Monday, February 7, 2011

Don't faze me, bro!

I admit to being fazed (disturbed or disconcerted, from Old English fesian) by made-up words that elbow their way into the language. Sometimes, if the neologisms are useful, I'll relent and adopt them, but not without a breaking-in period, usually accompanied by a modicum of grumbling.

Many of these new words have been tortured from existing ones in a process known as "back formation," for example, crafting a new verb from a real noun. When a protestor reached for Internet stardom and uttered the immortal words "Don't tase me, bro!" he bastardized a verb from a trademark name, Taser. ("Bastardize" is also a verb teased from a noun.)

Clearly, the public feels the need for a verb to describe the act of using a Taser. I don't think we have settled yet between "tase" and "taser" as a verb, but the instant popularity of the protestor's phrase may tip the balance toward the former.

"Liaise," a back-formation from "liaison," provides a verb for those who insist on one, but I cannot approve. Like many back-formations, it is clunky and, to make this one worse, it has a faintly pretentious air. How hard is it to say "John will act as liaison"? You'll sound more polished and you won't annoy me. Win-win.

Sometimes back-formed verbs are chosen instead of perfectly good, dictionary-approved ones. That's when I can be heard either yelling or mumbling, depending on my mood, "idiot!" or "are you kidding me?" to the television. Such as when a reporter told of a nutburger whose significant other was a large doll. TV reporter: "He believes some day they will create a doll that will conversate with him." Conversate? What is wrong with "converse"? Maybe the guy was too weirded out to think clearly. I can understand that.

I had the same reaction when I heard a TV talking head come out with the word "metamorphosize." "Metamorphose" is the right word and it's shorter by a syllable, two advantages that the commentator disregarded.

Of course, back-formations cannot, and should not, be eschewed completely. They can be helpful in communicating and provide flexibility to the language. I may even make my peace with "liaise." It may help eliminate another annoyance by teaching the public how to pronounce "liaison." If use of that back-formation stamps out "lay-uh-zahn," it will have become a force for good.

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