Dear Language Nerd,
What is it called when you add a special ending to a word to make a new word? Like “intuit” + “tion” = “intuition.” Thanks,
Ok. First I’m going to answer the question you think you asked. Then I’m going to answer the question you really asked. Hope you’re ready to have your mind blown.
The process of adding bits and pieces to extant words in order to make new words is affixation. A prefix is a chunk that goes on the front of a word (“re-,” “un-,” “pre-,” “dis-“) and a suffix goes on the end (“-tion,” “-acy,” “-er”). Affix just means either a prefix or a suffix, so we don’t have to say “and then you add a prefix-or-suffix” every time we talk about forming words. We are absolutely addicted to affixation in English. Got a verb like “rely” and need an adjective in your life? Add “-able” and it’s “reliable”! But then you want to negate “reliable,” and you’re bored by “not”? “Unreliable” fits the bill! Even itty-bitty “rely” itself underwent affixation long ago, when people added “re” to “ligare” (a now-lost word meaning “bind,” which stuck with us in the form “ligament.”) I’ve written a little about affixation before.
Alright, ready for the plot twist? “Intuition” was not formed by affixation from “intuit”… the process was the exact opposite.
Why yes, people do refer to me as “the M. Night Shyamalan of pop linguistics blog posts.” (This was more flattering back in The Sixth Sense/pre-Airbender days.)
Intuition came into the language whole, from the Latin intuitionem. Some three centuries later, people started thinking, “Huh, that sure looks like ‘intuit’ + ‘tion,’ don’t it?” and baddabingbaddaboom, intuiting was a thing you could do. This process – taking a long word and cutting bits off to make new ones – is called back-formation. It often happens after we’ve let a suffix, like “-tion,” run amok in English. Soon enough working backwards to a core word makes sense, even if the “-tion” was attached when we picked up the word.
Here’s another handy suffix: “-or/-er,” as in “person who is doing whatever.” We nabbed “editor” and “commentator” from Latin, and “-or” was already around in English, so we pared those nouns down to get the verbs “edit” and “commentate” as well. More recently, we saw the product name “Taser” and figured it held a verb, “tase.” And why shouldn’t we? Once it’s done, the final pair looks exactly like “teach” and “teacher” or “sail” and “sailor,” which went the more usual affixation route.
We can also make things a bit more complicated when it suits our fancy. We borrowed “destruction” from French, but added “self-“ to the front ourselves (“self-destruction” meaning “suicide” back in the day). Later, when we (“we” meaning here “the guys who invented Mission Impossible”) wanted a verb, we pulled that “–tion” off and created the all-new “self-destruct.” Though it’s apparently attested, I’ve never heard anyone just use “destruct,” probably because “destroy” covers those bases.
Or we can put a long word together first, out of several old words and affixes, then take bits off to make a new word of medium length. That’s how we got “nitpick” – we started with “to pick nits,” just a regular phrase, then got “nitpicker” as a person who critiqued small things excessively. We back-formed this into “nitpick” long after we’d forgotten that “nits” once meant “louse eggs.” This also gave us “handwrite.” We had “hand” and “writing” together as a noun way before we shortened it into a verb.
You can see how naturally this happens from the fact that I just back-formed “back-formed” from “back-formation.” Yup, I’m all about the meta-innovating.
The Language Nerd
*Wait a minute, etymonline has intuit as “perhaps” a back-formation? Perhaps?! Man, it better be, or I’m gonna feel silly.
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