A batch of back-formations

Three two-part back-formed verbs of interest came past me recently: an old acquaintance, to executive-produce ‘act as executive producer for’ [in film, tv, recordings, etc.]; to open carry ‘(lawfully) openly carry (firearms), (lawfully) carry (firearms) in the open’; and to way-find ‘to find one’s way (using some scheme or device)’.

to executive-produce. This was reported yesterday by Martin Kaminer on ADS-L:

As seen on a billboard yesterday (“Executive Produced by Jay-Z”).

Kaminer was interested both in the form and in its contextualized use (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tends to guard job titles energetically).

As it turns out, the example was discussed in a series of ADS-L postings on 11/9/08, set off by a posting of mine (relaying observations by Chris Waigl), with follow-ups by Ben Zimmer and Dave Wilton. Now Kaminer’s posting spurred Joel Berson to write:

What’s new or strange here?  Programs on TV often have a half-dozen or more Producers, with various adjectives, including Executive, added.  Is it the verbing rather than the adjective?  If the title “executive producer” is permitted by AMPAS, and the verbal form “produced” is permitted, why wouldn’t “executive produced” also be permitted?

The answer to Berson’s question on the form executive produced is that although something like

Jay-Z is the executive producer for the recording.

has the V produce in it, this V is not properly a syntactic constituent of the sentence; instead, it’s a morphological constituent of the noun executive producer, which is a syntactic constituent (it’s the head N of the predicative NP the executive producer for the recording); similarly for produce in Executive production by Jay-Z and (with a different sense of produce) in a productive idea, to reproduce the results, and the like. The general idea is that derivational morphology yields new complex lexical items, but that syntax is “blind to” the parts of these new items, cannot “see into” them. Somewhat more technically:

(Morphology-Free Syntax, or MFS) Syntactic rules cannot make reference to parts of derived lexemes.

Now there’s some work to be done in making even this generalization precise, and problems with the details of some constructions, but on the whole it’s a well-supported restrictive hypothesis about the way the grammars of languages are organized, so much so that a great many linguists just take it for granted in discussing particular cases.

Now, one of the complexities in MFS is that N+N compounds (like television producer) and Adj+N composites with N-like “pseudo-Adjs” (like electrical engineer) have first elements that can participate in syntactic constructions in a limited way, as in television and radio producer and electrical or mechanical engineer, with so-called “conjunction reduction”. Executive producer — with the Adj executive ‘having the power to put plans, actions, or laws into effect’ (NOAD2) — is like electrical engineer in this regard (note executive or associate producer, with the Adj associate ‘having shared function in production, but with a lesser status’ (freely paraphrasing NOAD2). So producer in this composite has a limited syntactic life. But I know of no evidence that the V produce contained morphologically in producer is anything but syntactically inert.

That is, given MFS, executive produced by Jay-Z is something of a surprise — until you realize that English allows a wide range of back-formation of two-part verbs, a kind of subtractive morphology deriving a V of the form X + Vhead, given an N of the form X + Nhead, where Nhead is a morphologically complex lexeme based on Vhead. The textbook examples of two-part back-formed Vs are based on “synthetic compounds”, X + Nhead lexemes where Nhead is (most commonly) of the form Vprp (spear-fishing) or V-er (timekeeper) and X is interpreted as a non-subject argument (spear, time) of the “inner” V (fish, keep): giving back-formed spear-fish (I love to spear-fish), timekeep (We made Kim timekeep).

Other types of 2-part back-formed verbs are based on X + N combinations in which the first N is an Adj modifying the head N, or in which the head N is an abstract N that’s a so-called “derived nominalization”, or both, as in free-associate, based on free association. (More discussion of the possibilities in this posting.) Executive-produce is of the modifying-Adj type, based on executive producer, with a head N in -er, derived from produce.

to open carry. The example to executive-produce turns out to be pretty simple, but to open carry — which has been much in the news recently as a result of an Oklahoma law that went into effect on Thursday — is packed with twists and turns.

Start with the NYT story (“Oklahomans Prepare for New Law That Will Make Guns a Common Sight” by Manny Fernandez) on Wednesday:

A new law takes effect on Thursday in Oklahoma — anyone licensed to carry a concealed firearm can choose to carry a weapon out in the open, in a belt or shoulder holster, loaded or unloaded.

… Advocates for gun rights said the ability to “open carry” would deter crime and eliminate the risks of a wardrobe mishap, such as when someone carrying a concealed weapon breaks the law by accidentally exposing the firearm.

This passage has the V open carry ‘(legally) openly carry, (legally) carry in the open’, used with an explicit (or understood) object referring to some sort of firearms. (Note that the use conditions for open carry are more specific than those for openly carry or carry in the open; this greater specificity is, along with brevity, a virtue of the back-formation.)

(Note: to concealed carry is broadly similar to to open carry.)

A few more cites:

You were legally allowed to open carry a sidearm down the street. (link)

Why are people allowed to open carry at gunshows in Texas? (link)

Well for all you Oklahoma residents with a concealed permit you’ll now be allowed to open carry your firearms as of tomorrow (link)

(As a bonus, this last example has concealed permit, a truncation of concealed carry permit.)

The basis for to open carry is the “action nominal” Vprp construction that marks the direct object of the “inner V” with the preposition of — so, (theopen carrying (of NP) ‘carrying (NP) openly’, in, say, (the) open carrying of firearms is prohibited in some states — as an alternative to “derived nominalization” (for those Vs that have them; Vs from the native English stratum of the vocabulary, like carry, generally lack derived nominalizations). Parallels in:

(the) recent criticizing of my positions is unwarranted (alternative: (the) recent criticism of my positions …)

(the) quick reviewing of these manuscripts was surprising but gratifying (alternative: (the) quick review of these manuscripts …)

From open carrying (of NP) we get the 2-part back-formed V to open carry (NP).

Now consider the Wikipedia article on open carry, which begins:

In the United States, open carry is shorthand terminology for “openly carrying a firearm in public”, as distinguished from concealed carry, where firearms cannot be seen by the casual observer.

The practice of open carry, where gun owners openly carry firearms while they go about their daily business, has seen an increase in the U.S. in recent years. This has been marked by a number of organized events intended to increase the visibility of open carry and public awareness about the practice.

Proponents of open carry point to history and statistics, noting that criminals usually conceal their weapons

with the definition

Open carry: The act of publicly carrying a firearm on one’s person in plain sight.

All of this is about the nominal open carry (Adj open + N carry), and in fact a huge number of the cites for open carry are nominal rather than verbal. Where does that come from?

I don’t have a direct nouning of carry in my files. OED2 does have a subentry for the noun carry in the sense ‘the action or an act of carrying; a posture or manner of carrying’, with cites from 1880 on, but none very close to the uses above. So I suggest that the path to the nominal uses goes through the back-formed verb:

[action nominal] (the) open carrying (of NP)

[by back-formation] to open carry (NP)

[by nouning] open carry (of NP)

The two nominal stages, the first and the third, have somewhat different semantics, which would bear looking into.

to way-find. In contrast to the complexities of to open carry and its associated expressions, to way-find is a snap. Wikipedia gives the background synthetic compound, wayfinding, based on find one’s way:

Wayfinding encompasses all of the ways [a somewhat unfortunate use of way in a different sense here; perhaps means by which would have been better than ways in which] in which people and animals orient themselves in physical space and navigate from place to place.

… Urban planner Kevin A. Lynch borrowed the term for his 1960 book Image of the City, where he defined wayfinding as “a consistent use and organization of definite sensory cues from the external environment”.

I recently came across the synthetic compound, I no longer recall where, and immediately wondered whether back-formation had had its way with the compound — and indeed it had:

Place the map’s area of interest in the palm of your hand to way-find (link)

Investigations using network analytic techniques reveal that humans, when asked to way-find their destination, learn the top ranked nodes of a network. (link)

a lawn which the visitor can find his way as he way-finds along undulating paths as the sculptures change from contemporary to figurative to abstract (link)

Once again, the back-formation is potentially somewhat more specific than the longer variant: to way-find suggests a particular scheme or device for finding one’s way, beyond random casting about for a route.

2 Responses to “A batch of back-formations”

  1. thnidu Says:

    I just (re)read this, following a link from one of your most recent posts. I prefer to save breath and ink/photons by self-referentially calling the results of this process “back-forms”.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      The problem is that there are back-forms that aren’t verbs, and among back-formed verbs, there are plenty that aren’t two-part verbs. Hence the technical term, to pick out the particular class of phenomena I’m talking about.

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