April 02, 2007

De-Baath(i)fication and spendthrift

For a minute this afternoon, I thought that someone at the NYT has decided that the word for removal of Baathists should be "de-Baathfication" (Edward Wong, "Shiite Cleric Opposes Return of Baathists in Iraq", 4/2/2007). The subtitle on the online front page, and the third sentence of the article, both use that version of the word:

The Americans say a partial reversal of the strict “de-Baathfication” process is one of the most crucial steps the Iraqi government can take in wooing back disenfranchised Sunni Arabs and draining the Sunni-led insurgency of its fervor.

But the other two uses of the term in the same article have the more usual version de-Baathification, so I guess it was just a typo:

The comments from the ayatollah’s office came a day after Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite and head of the de-Baathification commission, met with the cleric in Najaf.
Mr. Allawi said in an interview last month that the religious Shiites were using the de-Baathification process to unjustly purge members of his party from public office.

[The subhead on the index page should be de-de-Baath(i)fication, anyhow -- or OK, maybe re-Baathification -- but never mind that...]

The Google News Archive has 2,860 hists for {de-baathification} vs. only 6 for {de-baathfication}. There are also 211 hits for {debaathification} and 1 for {debaathfication}, so -ification is a clear winner, by almost 500 to 1. A pretty strong consensus, considering that we don't even have even one neologism commission! Instead, this is the effect of implicit understanding of an emergent principle of English morphology, which the OED expresses this way in its entry on -ification:

comb. form of suffix -FICATION, q.v.
The -i- is always present, either as the L. stem-vowel or its representative, as in glori-(a)-fication, molli-fication, fruct-i-fication, or as connecting vowel, as in oss-i-fication.

In other news, a survey in New Zealand has uncovered the fact that people (anyhow those participating in the survey) are about equally split as to whether spendthrift means "(1) A person who doesn't like to spend money (= miser, skinflint, penny pincher), or (2) A person who spends money freely".

There's a sense in which this loss of speech-community coherence comes from the same psycho-social process that maintains the coherence of de-Baat(i)ification. Just as users of English have learned to expect a linking -i- in -fication words, even if there is no Latin stem to provide one, so many New Zealanders clearly have a touching faith in the compositionality of English compound words, even if this faith takes them to a meaning opposite to the normal one.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 2, 2007 05:47 PM