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From absentee-vote to zero-tolerate: 26 backformed compound verbs
An alphabetical tour of modern verbs that entered the language backwards
These Georgia football players victory-danced after beating Louisiana State on Oct. 25, 2008.
These Georgia football players victory-danced after beating Louisiana State on Oct. 25, 2008. Dave Martin/Getty Images
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f there's one thing the English language is good at, it's making compound nouns. Whether you spell them as separate words (human resources solutions), hyphenated words (face-off), or single words (blackbird), they're everywhere.

Compound verbs, though, are a different story. According to the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, compound verbs are usually not formed by simply putting a noun or adjective with a verb, although it has happened with verbs such as speed-read and hand-wash. More typically, they arise by simply "verbing" a compound noun (as in gaslight); by adding a preposition (as in overcompensate); or by a three-step process that has been on the rise in recent decades.

Step one: Take the verb babysit. It owes its existence to the word babysitter, or maybe babysitting. Either way, we're talking about a verbal noun (sitter or sitting), put with another word to form a compound verbal noun: baby + sitter/sitting.

Step two: A reanalysis of the structure, so that baby and sit stick together tighter than sit and the –er or -ing suffix: babysit + er/ing. This paves the way for...

Step three: A revelation of the new verb by removing the –er or ­–ing suffix. This last step reverses the usual way that suffixes create new words: Usually it happens by addition of a suffix, but here the new word is created by removing a suffix. The name for this kind of reverse process is backformation. The same essential process can occur with other verbal nouns, too; for example, the verbal noun marriage in gay marriage becomes the verb marry in the backformed compound verb gay-marry (listed below). This example also shows that adjectives as well as nouns can be the first part of the compound.

To get an idea of how productive this compounding-reanalysis-backformation process is, here's a list of 26 such verbs, one for each letter in the alphabet. Some are older; some are newer; some are here to stay; others probably aren't. However, in these actual examples from the past two years, they've all been used to talk about current topics in business, politics, entertainment, or culture in general.

absentee-vote
More than 620,000 Floridians have absentee-voted already... 

binge-drink
Among Americans aged 18 to 20, 31 percent binge-drank (five or more drinks on one occasion) in the last month...

cherry-pick
Regardless of how much caution a scientist may take, it is inevitable skeptics will cherry-pick the literature to cast doubt on the science.

deficit-spend
...just imagine what's going to happen when the market takes away our ability to deficit-spend.

elder-abuse
One junior uniformed officer and one administration clerk were elder-abusing me.

Facebook-stalk
Ever Facebook-stalk an ex to see whom he or she has been messaging with?

gay-marry
I will gladly gay-marry or straight-marry any couple in Connecticut. [Bonus! The backformed retronym straight marry.]

Holocaust-deny
In Germany, it is a criminal offense to use freedom of speech to Holocaust-deny.

illegal-immigrate
As bad as I would feel for someone who illegal-immigrated 25 years ago and has kids born and raised here...

job-create
The 250,000 jobs man would have his opportunity to job-create.

kick-start
Meanwhile, Paul Tracy romped to the victory that kick-started his championship season.

level-set
We have to level-set expectations up front.

money-launder
And they didn't just commit the act once; they money-laundered repeatedly over the course of several years.

network-optimize
...it's because VZW doesn't network-optimize 4G devices at this time...

offshore-drill
To offshore-drill or not to offshore-drill — for oil-producing states, that is the question.

performance-enhance
Kittel was trying to performance-enhance.

quote-mine
You gave me a video that was selectively quote-mined. Give me a video in which the entire context is shown.

recess-appoint
President Obama recess-appointed Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

show-run
The writing was not up to snuff (for anyone, let alone someone who has show-run)...

trouble-shoot
I called my ISP and we trouble-shot my connection.

union-bust
Rather than trying to union-bust from within, would it not be more practical to remove the elements that make employees vote them in to begin with?

victory-dance
...the Democratic Convention celebrated the killing of Osama bin Laden and victory-danced to cries of "al Qaeda is no more."

whistle-blow
Your brother stole money from the company, and regardless of whether he whistle-blew on himself and offered to pay it back, its still stealing.

executive-produce
Jay-Z to executive-produce Great Gatsby soundtrack.

YouTube-search
btw, I youtube-searched "fat italian woman" and this was one of the results.

zero-tolerate
Oh, you hate zero-tolerance except when they zero tolerate stuff you hate.

Neal Whitman is a columnist for the online resource Visual Thesaurus. He blogs at Literal-Minded and teaches ESL composition at Ohio State University.

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