Is Conversate a Word?
How do oddities such as "conversate" arise? Back formations are more common than you may realize.
Neal Whitman has a PhD in linguistics and blogs at Literal Minded.
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Last month I was on a call-in radio program, and one of the callers asked about the words “commentate” and “conversate.” She hadn’t even thought “conversate” was a word until a friend of hers used it, and she laughed, thinking it was a joke, only to realize her friend was using it in all seriousness. She and another caller also brought up the word “orientate.” These three words have something in common, and it’s not just that they all end in “-ate” and people wonder about their legitimacy. They also were all formed by a process called back-formation. Back-formation isn’t always a bad thing, but it can sometimes cause a problem. Today we’ll talk about why that happens.
Form a New Word by Adding a Suffix: Suffixation
When you start to use a verb ending in “-ate” or “-icate,” check to see if there is a shorter verb that has the same meaning.
To understand back-formation, let’s first think about another word-formation process, suffixation. Suffixation is common. Take the verb “syndicate.” The noun “syndication” was created from “syndicate” by adding the suffix “-ion.” So you’d think the noun “donation” was created by putting a suffix on the verb “donate,” right?
Form a New Word by Removing a Suffix: Back-Formation
Surprise! It wasn’t. The noun “donation” entered the language first, in the 15th century, and only later, in the 19th century, was the verb “donate” formed by removing the suffix.
How can you tell whether one word was derived from another by adding a suffix, or the process went in the opposite direction, via back-formation? Unless you check a dictionary, or you were alive to notice the newer word entering the language, you can’t. And it usually doesn’t matter, either. Both “syndicate” and “donate” are 100% acceptable, standard English words.
Examples of Back-Formation
Back-formation can happen with other suffixes, too. For example, the word “pea” (meaning the vegetable, I hasten to add), was created by back-formation from the word “pease,” spelled P-E-A-S-E. The word “pease” sounds plural, but it was actually a singular noun, kind of like “oatmeal” or “mush.” But “pease” sounded so much like a plural that it was interpreted as one, and people formed the singular word “pea” by stripping away what they perceived to be a plural suffix.
Another well-known example, relevant to many of my listeners, is “edit.” The noun “editor” entered the English language first, and about 100 years later, the “-or” suffix was removed to give us the verb “edit.”