August 17, 2006

To prudently recreate

Something about those days recently when President George W. Bush riding his mountain bike around his ranch near Crawford, Texas, and making occasional remarks to the press about the crisis-ridden Middle East and very high oil prices, reminded me of many years ago, when his father President George H. W. Bush was tooling around the bay off Kennebunkport in a high-powered speedboat during an earlier time of war in the Middle East. Reporters asked Bush (Sr.) whether he thought it was right, during a time of great national anxiety about the interrupted oil supply, to be spending precious gasoline on riding a huge boat around the Maine coastline for fun. And I remember that President Bush said, a tad defensively, that he thought it was perfectly appropriate for Americans "to prudently recreate". The barbarous phrase did convince me of the elder Bush's capacity to hideously back-formate.

Umm... Forgive me my little linguist joke, which I suppose I had better ruin by explaining it, for we do not like to be obscure here on Language Log. The issue is not that he used a split infinitive; split infinitives are fine — they're grammatical, and always have been. No, it was the word recreate, with the first syllable pronounced like wreck. The existence of the noun recreation, meaning "pursuit of non-work-related activities with a view to fun or relaxation", you see, is not a guarantee of the existence of a related verb recreate. (True, there is a completely different verb that I'll write as re-create, in which the first syllable is the prefix also seen in re-educate or re-enter. But that means "create again", and it is not the word I'm talking about.)

Assuming that there must be a verb because of some noun that appears to have been formed from it, and inventing that verb when in fact it is ahistorical, is a familiar process known to historical linguists as back-formation. Some back-formations catch on and become fully respectable; edit is one.

One can use the term back-formation to illustrate its meaning: there is no verb *back-formate, just as the noun formation is not derived from a verb *formate. If someone were to mistakenly assume there was such a verb, as I pretended to do at the end of my first paragraph, they would have coined a back-formation.

If you did not get my joke first time round, perhaps now that I've ruined it, you can (just for recreation) re-create it. Prudently, of course.

Update: Of course, just because something struck my ear as new in 1991 or whenever it was, that doesn't mean it was. People have written to me with evidence of other, earlier citations for recreate as a verb meaning "take recreation" or "amuse oneself", so it is perfectly possible that GHWB did not imprudently back-formate. A few of the citations are hundreds of years old. The noun recreation does seem to be older than the verb; and the verb is regarded by the OED as now mainly American; but I'm probably wrong about GHWB having been a back-formator, which ruins my little joke even more, doesn't it? I'm dyin' out here. Who writes this stuff for me? Get me rewrite.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at August 17, 2006 07:14 PM