An old joke

It’s an old joke, revived in today’s Bizarro:

Yes, the homophonous homo ‘human being, man [generic]’ (as in Homo sapiens) and homo ‘same’ (as in homophone), producing some confusion about the homo in homosexual, which etymologically conveys ‘same sex’ but many people take to refer to sex with men.

Tucked in there is the back-formed singular homosapien, from homosapiens, etymologically a participle in -s but reinterpreted as a plural in -s. Mentioned without comment in my 10/31/07 Language Log posting “I am neither America nor a snowclone” (here): Homosapien eye for the Neanderthal guy.

Back-formed nouns based on nouns in -s, as covered in Language Log:

GP, 2/28/04: Kudos, cherries and peas (link)

AZ, 7/3/05: Rummy’s last throe (link)

ML, 11/19/06: Fomite: panacea or backformation? (link)

GP, 11/17/08: The WAGs back home (link)

and in Literal-Minded:

2/21/08 A right-node wrapping, a backformation, and a double passive gone wrong (here) on rabie tag for rabies tag

3/02/08 Getting testy (here) on teste as sg. of testes and fece as sg. of feces

From Wikipedia on English back-formations: aborigine (OED2: at first only in the pl.), arm ‘weapon’, asset, bicep, cherry, congratulation, kudo, pea, statistic, stave, tricep; and from OED2, “serië or indicè as a sg. of series, indices”.

(Note that some historical back-formations have become entirely standard, while others are still non-standard.)

Then, from various sources, including contributors to ADS-L in 2008: gyro (from sg. gyros, orig. pl. gyroi), specie (sg. of species), tamale (Sp. tamales, pl. of tamal), parenthesee or parenthesi, indice or indicee or indici (in three syllables, but indice pronounced /ɪndɪs/ is also attested), vertice or verticee and matrice or matricee (variation as with indice), quadricep alongside bicep and tricep, clo as sg. of clothes (pron. /kloz/), eave.

4 Responses to “An old joke”

  1. ShadowFox Says:

    I am not entirely sure “statistic” is a spontaneous back-formation rather than a deliberate inventive terminology. At least, not in the technical sense–statistic as a specific measure of representativesness of data. Of course, now we also have “become a statistic” (meaning, a single datum in crime statistics).

    • Ian Preston Says:

      I agree. The term was consciously chosen by R. A. Fisher to fill a gap in terminology. I think it is clear that he knew what he was doing but it wasn’t uncontroversial. Karl Pearson apparently objected: “Are we also to introduce the words a mathematic, a physic, an electric etc., for parameters or constants of other branches of science?”

      “Specie”, by the way, has a long history as a mass noun in economics, meaning money, but derived from the ablative form in the phrase in specie. The OED suggests that this derivation may be linked to some (very old) singular uses to mean kind or species (of currency, for example), though it agrees that it is now typically a mistaken singularisation of “species”.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Back-formation doesn’t mean ‘spontaneous back-formation’, but applies equally well to deliberately chosen innovations. This is especially clear in two-part back-formed verbs, a fair number of which began life as conscious creations.

  2. The perils of fronting « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Bizarro with back-formed homosapien, here, in a posting with other links on nouns back-formed from nouns in -s (there are […]

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