Jon Lighter reported on ADS-L on the 22nd that:

A fellow opposed to gay marriage argued in All Things Considered a few minutes back that if you’re married to somebody of the same sex, “How can you repropriate?”

Well, it hadn’t been a good day for me, and as sometimes happens with these wrong-word examples, I couldn’t figure out what the speaker was aiming (unsuccessfully) at. I was thrown into a mild tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) state, came up with two possibilities that I knew were wrong (because they didn’t fit the context) — the verbs (re)appropriate and reciprocate — and appealed to the ADS-Lers for help.

On the TOT state in Wikipedia:

The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon … is the failure to retrieve a word from memory, combined with partial recall and the feeling that retrieval is imminent. The phenomenon’s name comes from the saying, “It’s on the tip of my tongue.”

The phenomenon has been studied experimentally for some time now; see the brief remarks on pp. 16-17 of my booklet Mistakes.

Back on ADS-L, Jon Lighter came quickly to the rescue on repropriate: reproduce. The ATC questioner presupposed that the (central, or even sole) purpose of marriage is sexual reproduction, so that two people who cannot reproduce would necessarily be ineligible for marriage. (Joel Berson suggested replicate, but that’s rarely used of human beings.)

Put the presupposition aside. Otherwise, this speaker was aiming for the simple intransitive verb reproduce and came up with repropriate instead.

The simplest sort of inadvertent word substitution would have been a Fay-Cutler malapropism: pulling up a different lexical item, but one phonologically similar to the target. Repropriate, however, is not a lexical item; it’s not in the OED, even as a rare or obsolete item, or as a hapax.

It could, however, be a classical malapropism (CM), embodying a misapprehension (for some speaker) about the form (phonological and morphological) of a lexical item; see pp. 14-15 of Mistakes. CMs are sometimes existing words, confused in the speaker’s experience with phonologically similar words (behest with for beset with), but there are other routes to CMs, involving the lexicalization for particular speakers of  eggcorning reshapings, mishearings, and inadvertent blends. To find out if repropriate is a CM, we’d have to investigate the original speaker’s usage to see whether he thinks that this is in fact the word he wanted, and whether he’d use it on other occasions.

Short of a CM, repropriate could be a one-shot inadvertent blend of another word (or other words) with reproduce. Joel Berson suggested the beginning of reproduce + the end of propagate. That can’t be quite right, since that combination would give something like repropagate or repragate, rather than repropriate. And, in any case, propagate is only rarely used as a simple intransitive with a sexual sense (??A gay couple can’t propagate — but reflexive A gay couple can’t propagate itself, though even that usage for human beings strikes me as odd), so that it’s hard to think of reproduce and propagate as competitors for the same slot in language production (giving the sort of interference that results in a typical blend).

The fact is that although inadvertent blends are usually neat stitchings-together of two parts, some real-life examples are much messier, involving bits and pieces from different expressions that share some phonological and semantic features. On ADS-L, Garson O’Toole suggested just that for repropriate — that it’s a “stew” with (potentially) many ingredients: reproduce, propagate, procreate, replicate, maybe (re)appropriate, generate, or even reciprocate (or, less likely, the obscure parturitate and progenerate). On this view, the ingredients wouldn’t necessarily have to participate as wholes, but can contribute stretches (not necessarily morphemes in the classical sense) to the mix.

So maybe there’s not much we can say about how this one word got created on this one occasion, beyond feeling fairly certain that reproduce is the main ingredient in the stew.


7 Responses to “repropriate”

  1. Éamonn McManus Says:

    “Make up your mind that you will say both words, but leave it unsettled which you will say first.” It seems to me that squishing together reproduce and procreate would be enough, but We May Never Know.

  2. pxsarkany Says:

    I’d also suggest adding “copulate” to the list. It’s not entirely accurate in that situation either, but I imagine it’s not far from their mind.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Copulate is not at all a good fit semantically, because the point for the anti-same-sex-marriage folks is that while same-sex couples can copulate (engage in sex), they can’t reproduce (engage in *productive* sex).

      • pxsarkany Says:

        Right. My thought was that the speaker was thinking about sex, and reproduction together, so that “copulate” might have been on their mind, even though it is not appropriate semantically.

  3. RF Says:

    What about “repopulate”? It gets that second “p” in, and does have roughly the right semantic meaning. I know we can probably play this game forever, but this was definitely the first word I thought of.

  4. Another round of repropriation « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the last installment, we looked at an example of a verb repropriate intended to convey ‘reproduce, […]

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