Following on my “Pepsification” posting (about -ify and -ification), Randy Alexander posted on ADS-L on August 29:

In 4th grade at a Catholic school, I used “stupefication” in a class assignment, ignorant to the fact that it should have been “stupefaction”.  The seminarian teaching the class held up my paper and laughed at me (what a jerk), offering no explanation as to the reason behind this strange morphological form.

Google tells me I’m not the only one using this word — it’s even in many headlines.

But I still have no idea what is going on morphologically.  Anyone care to elucidate?

Yes, it’s a mistake, but it’s a “smart mistake”, providing evidence that Randy had learned almost everything relevant about English morphology and orthography — except for one tiny wrinkle in the system that just has to be memorized.

[Digression on Randy’s being mocked by a teacher for having made a mistake.

Point 1: I’m reluctant to see mocking or punishing people for errors as a good strategy, in general, for teaching (or for effective leading). It’s certainly not my style, though I’m often challenging. It’s an especially bad strategy if you’re trying to reach a broad audience (as opposed to selecting some tiny number of those who are both the most talented and the most motivated). I thrived as a child through encouragement, not punishment, so I have a personal bias. (I do know people who credit punishment — being hit by rods on their knuckles for errors in piano practice, for example — for their achievements. On the other hand, we don’t hear from the great many who retreated from learning under such onslaughts.)

Point 2: In the past, when I’ve labeled a mistake as a “smart mistake”, some readers have written me to say that there can be no such thing, that mistakes are mistakes, period. When I’m feeling amiable, I’ll say, “Well, almost all mistakes show some competence in using the language, and that’s revealing about the way language works.” When I’m feeling short-tempered, I’ll say, “Well, then you’re profoundly ignorant”, meaning ignorant ‘unaware of facts, not knowing’. We all ignorant of many things, after all, and that’s something that can be fixed.

Point 3: Making mistakes is no big thing, in learning some skill (like speaking or writing a language, or playing baseball, or playing the piano — or in scientific discovery, for that matter. In fact, you should press ahead and let the mistakes fall as they will, then adjust and improve (or at least try something else).]

But back to Randy’s mistake. He knew (a) one big thing about English morphology, which is that verbs in -fy generally have corresponding derived nouns in -fication; and he knew two fussy things about English orthography, (b) that although most verbs in -fy have a preceding vowel, spelled I, a handful have the vowel spelled with E, and (c) that the causative of stupid, stem stup-, is one of them: STUPEFY rather than STUPIFY.

What he didn’t know is (d) that, thanks to a complex set of facts about the history of English (which no ordinary person should be expected to know about), the -EFY verbs generally have nominalizations in -faction rather than -fication (and preserve the E in their spelling): LIQUEFY – LIQUEFACTION.

This is a truly arcane fact, affecting only a tiny number of verbs that are reasonably common (and not very many even if you throw in the rare ones):

liquefaction, putrefaction, rarefaction, stupefaction

(Other -faction nominalizations that are reasonably common but do not have E in the spelling: satisfaction ( < satisfy), petrifaction ( < petrify). Plus rarifaction as a variant of rarefaction.)

Unless you have lucked onto the fussy morphology-orthography generalization (d), you will assume, as Randy did, that (a)-(c) predict


If you haven’t learned the weird orthographic peculiarity in (b), and you’ve heard stupefy, you’ll assume that it’s spelled STUPIFY, with (of course) a nominalization spelled STUPIFICATION. That’s a smart mistake too, though not quite as smart as Randy’s.

[Digression. At this point, some people say that, well, kids should just learn that the word is stupefaction, spelled STUPEFACTION; each word and its spelling have to be learned on their own. This is a truly dumbass idea, since it treats all of English morphology and orthography as totally unsystematic, though in fact it’s a giant rat’s nest of big regularities, subregularities (some of them competing with one another), subsubregularities, and outright exceptions. Treating everything as an exception is just silly.]

Now, some facts.

One, the -EFY verbs are quite frequently regularized orthographically (contra (b)) as -IFY. That goes for the whole set. For petrifaction, NOAD2 lists petrification as just a variant (and I prefer it, despite the title of George Bernard Shaw’s wonderfully silly one-act play, “Passion, Poison, and Petrifaction”). For the rest, -IFICATION is a non-standard variant, but very very common (in ghits):

liquification, putrification, rarification, stupification

(even satisfication).

Two, even if you get -EFY right, you’re still likely to go for -fication rather than -faction (with the accompanying spellings). All of the following are amply attested:

liquefication, putrefication, rarefication, stupefication

Three, -IFY + -IFICATION, the combination of points one and two, is also amply attested:

liquify – liquification, putrify – putification, rarify – rarification, stupify – stupification

There are twiddles in all of this — standard spelling variations, like PETREFACTION ~ PETRIFACTION ~ PETRIFICATION, and a lot more. But the big picture is of very big regularities (like (a)), subregularities (like (d), -EFY predicting -EFACTION), and flat-out exceptions (like (b)).

[Final digression. At this point, critics complain that “if only speakers knew the history of their language” or “if only English speakers knew the facts of Latin (or Greek)”, then they would know how to speak and write English correctly. These are remarkably foolish ideas, but that’s a topic for another time.]

4 Responses to “stupefication”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    If only things were different they wouldn’t be the same …

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The Ridger explains (in e-mail) that this comment was about my last digression, and that it involved a cultural reference I didn’t get:

      The sentence is a quote from a classic Law and Order, in which an executive was refusing moral responsibility for people’s death. “If you hadn’t cheated them, they’d be alive” said the DA and he responded “I concede your point: if things were different they wouldn’t be the same.” Many people I know use that line to respond to sentiments like “if only everyone knew Latin”.

      So the sentiment is “If things were different, they wouldn’t be the way they are.” I suppose the opposition between same and different led to the unusual formulation in L&O.

  2. mesns Says:

    “stupefy” does not mean to make to be stupid, but it seems posible that was the actual intent of the writer. So what noun would fill the bill for “made to be stupid”? Sorta like our education system is doing.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      To mesns: Older -fy verbs often have drifted from straightforward causative or inchoative meanings to extended meanings, including those expressing analogies or similarities: ‘to make (or become) as if …’. So now to get a single verb conveying ‘make stupid’, you need to reach for something like the innovation stupidify (which is in fact attested in this sense, as well as in the sense ‘to make into nonsense’).

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