Backformation Can Make You Invent New Words Without Realizing It (Psychology)

There are a number of ways new words come into English. We can put two words together to make a compound (“photobomb,” “humblebrag”), add endings onto existing words (“hotness”), shorten longer words (“bro”), or simply make them up (That’s so “fetch!”) But one of the most common ways for a new word to come into English is for people to assume it must already exist. The process is called backformation, and it reveals our natural tendency to expand on the patterns that structure vocabulary.

If you can “convalesce” and “acquiesce,” why not “adolesce”? If you can “compensate” and “speculate,” why not “conversate”? If a baker bakes, and an actor acts, what does a burglar do? People do sometimes use words like “adolesce,” “conversate,” and “burgle,” but these words usually get a laugh. They aren’t completely accepted as standard English, and despite the existence of their counterparts “adolescence,” “conversation,” and “burglar,” they seem somehow wrong.

But there are also plenty of words that are completely accepted that were created in the exact same way: by stripping the ending off a noun to reveal what should be the verb behind that noun. “Escalate” was not a verb until after the invention of the escalator. There was no verb “to curate” until centuries after the curator. Other backformed verbs include injure (from injury), reminisce (from reminiscence), and scavenge (from scavenger). There’s nothing funny or nonstandard about these verbs today. Backformation is a generally unremarkable process for vocabulary creation.

Though the most common pathway to a backformation is from noun to verb, sometimes adjectives are stripped of their endings to form new nouns or verbs. “Greed” was formed from “greedy” and “ditz” from “ditzy.” We can now “laze” around being “lazy.” What seems to be important in the success of a backformation is how identifiable the ending of a word is as an ending. When there’s an –y, or –ation, or –er, it’s easy to read as an addition to a root word, even when it isn’t. For example, the English word “cherry” comes from a misreading of the French borrowing “cherise” as “cherry” + “s.”

Misreadings don’t only occur with words borrowed from other languages, but also with English words transformed by historical changes. The verb “to grovel” was formed from a reading of groveling as “grovel” + “ing.” It was originally “groof” + “ling,” an adverb meaning “face down,” akin to “headlong” or “sidelong.” Pronunciation changes obscured the true root and ending and made the new reading not only possible but natural. It fit right into the extremely common verb+ing structure.

It’s also helpful to the success of a backformation if there isn’t a strong competitor for the word that results. “Grovel” evoked a more specific scenario than “abase oneself,” but the meanings of “conversate” or “sanitate” are already captured by “converse” and “sanitize.” Benefactors don’t “benefact” because they already “support,” “endow,” or “donate.” However, just because a competitor exists doesn’t mean a backformation can’t catch on. When “donate” itself was formed off of “donation,” sticklers complained that it was ridiculous gobbledygook for the much simpler “give.” But it turned out to be a useful expression for a very particular type of giving and has since been fully absorbed into the language.

There are many ways for us to exploit the resources of English to say what we want to say in a new way. Backformation is just another creative way to “liase,” “emote,” and “iridesce” with language.

The Most Exclusive Museum In The Galaxy May Be On The Moon (Amazing Places)

On November 14, 1969, the Apollo 12 mission launched and three astronauts began humanity’s second trip to the lunar surface. While this fateful mission marked yet another historic launch in NASA’s Apollo program, it also successively established one of the most exclusive art museums in the world.

Sitting on the leg of the Intrepid lander module left on the moon by the Apollo 12 astronauts is a small ceramic wafer. On it, there are six works of art from famous artists in the 1960s, notably Andy Warhol and John Chamberlain. This wafer is now known as the Moon Museum, and you’ll likely never get to visit it.

The moon museum was a concept thought up by an American sculptor named Forrest “Frosty” Myers. He originally pitched the idea to NASA but failed to get a response from official channels. In fact, Myers said, “They never said no; I just couldn’t get them to say anything.”

Determined to bring the project into reality, he decided to take the project covert and pursue some “unofficial” channels that could get the museum onboard.

For the museum’s construction, Myers needed technology that wasn’t commercially available at the time. He contacted a non-profit named Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) who linked him with scientists from Bell Laboratories to construct 18 wafers. After commissioning small sketches from six artists for the wafers, including himself, and creating them with techniques used in circuitry production, Myers then undertook the covert process of getting one of the wafers attached to the lander.

Through some contacts he had made at the Grumman Aircraft Corporation, Myers handed off the wafer to engineers working closely on the Intrepid lander project and trusted they would accomplish the task.

Eventually, on November 12, he got a telegraph at his house saying “YOUR ON’ A.O.K. ALL SYSTEMS GO,” signed “JOHN F.” Nevermind the improper use of “your” — the chip had purportedly made it onto the lander.

At three-quarters of an inch (19 millimeters) by half an inch (13 millimeters) and roughly the thickness of mechanical pencil lead, the “Moon Museum” wafer is quite small. After all, it had to be to be able to be covertly placed on the leg of the landing module.

In the image above you can see the “works of art” contained on the face of the wafer, which Myers commissioned specifically for the project. Myers created the geometric piece in the lower left corner; to the right of that is Claes Oldenburg’s Mickey Mouse: a version of a sculpture he was showing at MoMA at the time. The black box in the upper right created by David Novros and the diagram beneath that made by John Chamberlain are both inspired by circuitry. Robert Rauschenberg produced the single line in the upper center. To the left of that, Andy Warhol drew what he claimed was a stylized version of his initials. If you think it looks like something else, you’re right: It also looks like a rocket ship.

So did the Moon Museum make it to the moon? “I don’t know about it,” Julian Scheer, NASA assistant administrator for public affairs told the New York Times in 1969. “If it is true that they’ve succeeded in doing it by some clandestine means, I hope that the work represents the best in contemporary American art.” The only way anyone could really know is by going to the moon itself, which may happen sooner than you think.

Huashan Teahouse Serves The Most Dangerous Tea In The World (Amazing Places)

The harder you work for something, the more you’ll enjoy it. That’s why people appreciate gifts that they have to put together themselves. Knowing that, the tea at Huashan Teahouse has got to taste fantastic. Why? Because you can only get it at the top of Mount Hua — and you’ve got to risk a lot to get there.

Xi’an is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China for its fine cuisine, its many large pagodas, and perhaps most of all, for the world-famous Terracotta Army. Outside of the city, you’ll find the Qinling mountain range, and there, you’ll find Mount Hua (aka Huashan), one of China’s Five Great Mountains. It’s home to numerous Taoist temples and is a destination for many religious pilgrimages. One of the most famous of those temples is on the southernmost peak, an ancient place that has since been converted to a teahouse.

You might not think that a teahouse situated more than 7,000 feet (2,133 meters) above sea level would get much traffic. But apparently, the tea at this particular shop is enough to inspire some pilgrimages. You’ll have a two-hour trek just to get from Xi’an to Huashan, but that’s the easy part. In order to actually try some of this tea, you’ll have to ascend the Heavenly Stairs. Don’t let the name fool you: This journey is anything but divine.

You can rent a safety harness to get this cup of tea, but it’s not required. You might want to spring for it, though. The Heavenly Stairs are shallow, steep, and carved directly into the mountain. They also aren’t generally accompanied by any kind of guardrail. Even that’s not the most harrowing part of the trip. When you get higher on the mountain, you’ll get to a section where you’ll have to navigate on wooden planks — again, no guardrail, so there’s nothing but open air between you and a 7,000-foot drop. But the most heart-pounding part of all will have you wishing for those rickety slabs of wood. You’ll have to hang onto a chain bolted into the mountain and slot your feet into holds chiseled into the sheer rock face. Heaven help you if someone else is coming down while you’re heading up — you’ll have to squeeze past each other somehow.

Is the tea worth it? Sources say yes. Writing for NPR, Laurel Dalrymple writes that the tea on the mountain is made from pristine water from “snowmelt, rain, and mountain springs.” In older times, that water would have had to have been brought up to the peak by hand — imagine making that trek with more than 100 pounds (45 kilograms) of materials on your back. Fortunately, modernization efforts have made the trip easier, so the tea isn’t quite so hard to come by. For now, we’re just going to stick with Starbucks.