Ian Frazier, in a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece “Scratch and Sniff” (October 19, p. 30), about police dogs that sniff out cell phones:

Captain Matthew Kyle: “We don’t want to publicate what the cell-phone smell is exactly. It’s an organic substance that’s in all cell phones–leave it at that.”

What caught my eye was the verb publicate ‘make public, advertise’ (a verbing of the adjective public via suffixation with -ate), which I didn’t recall having seen before. Was it a recent innovation?

Well, you probably know where this story is going to go now.

Off to the OED! Which has a publicate entry (draft revision of June 2009), with citations from 1548 through 1997. The verb is glossed ‘to publish; to make publicly known, expose’, and both meanings are attested throughout this history. The OED says the verb is now rare, but Google suggests otherwise.

The ‘publish’ sense is still around, as in this question posed to WikiAnswers:

When was ‘Night Shift” publicated? (link)

(The answer tells us that the book “was first published” in 1978.) Not just still around, but around in large numbers, though to be fair, lots of the hits are from non-native speakers. Some others are in computer contexts where publish can be used to refer to putting material on a site or making it available there, as here:

Published: Whether the menu will be publicated or concealed. (link)

The line between the two senses is none too clear, but sometimes, as in the New Yorker quote, it’s clearly the ‘make public, expose’ sense that’s intended.

In any case, the verb is not a recent innovation, though it might have had a fairly recent revival.

6 Responses to “publicate”

  1. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Another possibility for publicate: it could be a back-formation from publication (cf. conversate from conversation). The origins of English -ate verbs are complex and it’s often hard to disentangle one route from another.

  2. mollymooly Says:

    Captain Matthew Kyle’s use of “publicate” seems to have a sense different from the core senses of either “publish” or “publicize”; a sense for which I would have used “make public”.

  3. Gary Says:

    mollymooly: wouldn’t you actually say “I don’t want to go public with …”, not “make public”?

    I suspect that the spokesman was inexpertly translating from his normal style to a more formal style. He knew that “go public” had to be changed to a formal-language single-“word” verb, so he created an ad-hoc verbification from “publication”.

  4. dikko1 Says:

    This is one error I’ve noticed amongst Swedes speaking English. The common examples include administrate and registrate, so I figured it as a back-formation from the -ation noun.

  5. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To dikko1: the OED treats publicate (and demonstrate and administrate and registrate) as historically formed directly from a Latin past participle stem, but it’s quite likely that, with the exception of demonstrate, the rest of these verbs are sometimes freshly created by back-formation from nouns. (In the case of registrate, this is almost surely the case; the OED labels it as obsolete — cites from the 16th-18th centuries only — and chiefly Scottish. Demonstrate is attested from the 16th century to modern times, administrate from the 17th century to modern times.)

    So: there are several routes to publicate: direct formation from the Latin past participle stem (probably the source of the historically older cites); by suffixation of -ate to public (likely on semantic grounds for the example I led with in this posting); and back-formation from publication (likely for many non-native-speaker uses). Quite likely different analyses are appropriate for diferent occurrences; this is not a matter of deciding on “the correct” analysis.

  6. mollymooly Says:

    mollymooly: wouldn’t you actually say “I don’t want to go public with …”, not “make public”?
    No. I’m not sure I can say why not, but here goes:
    in my idiolect,
    if A “makes [B] public” then A knows about B, most others don’t, and A tells them about it.
    if A “goes public” with B, then A has some important connection to B, and it is the connection that is being made public; B itself may already be known, but not connected to A.
    Or something.

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