to shape-shift

Jonathan Lighter on ADS-L yesterday, under the heading “Re back-forming again”:

This past Monday’s Supergirl had someone explaining that Martian J’onn J’onnz had “shape-shifted” to get into Maxwell Lord’s technofortress.

Yes, this is an example of a 2pbfV (two-part back-formed verb), but not at all a remarkable one; to shape-shift was an early item in my inventory of 2pbfVs, and examples of the verb are very thick on the ground. But the subject is entertaining, so I’ll play with  it a bit.

We start with the synthetic compounds shape-shifting (or shape shifting or shapeshifting) and shape-shifter, both items in which the VP to shift (in) (one’sshape is compressed into a word. Both compounds are common enough (and semantically specialized enough) to make it into most dictionaries (OED2 has the first from 1884 on, the second from 1887); there’s a Wikipedia entry for shapeshifting, and there are books:

(Werewolves and vampires are two currently popular types of shapeshifters.) The Wikipedia article, which is quite extensive, begins:

In mythology, folklore and speculative fiction, shapeshifting, or metamorphosis is the ability of an entity to physically transform into another being or form. This is usually achieved through an inherent faculty of a mythological creature, divine intervention, or the use of magic spells or talismans.

Shapeshifting, then, is not merely changing in shape, but transformation or metamorphosis into another being or object.

From shapeshifting and shapeshifter we get a useful back-formed verb, with BSE shape-shift, PRS forms shape-shift and shape-shifts, and PST/PSP forms shape-shifted, in addition to the PRP shape-shifting, the nominal shape-shifting, and the agentive shape-shifter. The PST form seems to be especially frequent. A few examples from Google Books:

Bridging: The Land of One’s Kingdom, by James Wait: 1 ex.
As Warwick was the leader of the chosen ones when he shape shifted into a drone, his drone looked like a ravishing black wolf with bright white wings.

African Mythology, A to Z, by Patricia Ann Lynch & Jeremy Roberts: 3 exx.
In one tale, an evil shaman shape-shifted into a lion and attacked a large cow in the village.
Thinking quickly, Mbokothe shape-shifted into a bird and flew into the sky. To his horror, the buyer shape-shifted into a kite hawk, intending to catch the bird in his talons.

A Treasury of Norse Mythology: Stories of Intrigue, Trickery, Love, and Revenge, by Donna Jo Napoli [note: a linguist!]: 2 exx.
Loki went to where Freyja slept in Sessrumnir and found the door locked. Well, that was no problem; he shape-shifted into a fly and flitted around, searching for a hole he could slip through.
Loki shape-shifted into his own form now and unclasped the necklace.

Meanwhile, Wordnik has an entry for shape-shifted, with 10 examples from an assortment of sources.

The OED doesn’t yet have an entry for the verb shape-shift, but then revisions for OED3 take time to prepare.

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