For whatever reason, words like “hangry” catch on, while perfectly serviceable words like “aggress” are lost forever to history.
New words are made up all the time, but what exactly renders it a “real word?” Often, as long as they gain traction and have a distinct meaning, they’re eventually seen as “real words,” though it’s not as cut and dry as you’d imagine.
Take the word televise. Television came first, in order for it to be possible to televise anything. This is called a back-formation. The word televise made it; others, such as gruntled, failed to secure common-language real estate.
This article exists to honor such back formations that never quite got off the ground.
The back-formation of contraception, contracept was birthed in the 1960s meaning to “prevent pregnancy” when the first birth control pill was approved by the US government. Since using contraception and contracepting are essentially satisfying the same use, the word never gained popularity—a fate shared by many back formations.
Example: “We should respect her choice to contracept.”
Committing aggression requires an initial attack. Combatants knew this, thus in the 1500s, the word aggress was born as the back formation of aggression. Initially meaning “to approach,” aggress evolved into its more lethal meaning “to attack first” or “to begin a fight or quarrel.”
Example: “It wouldn’t be wise to aggress, Mathew; he knows a thing or two about brawls.”
Whereas uncouth means rude and obnoxious, couth means “possessing good manners,” and “demonstrating sophistication and refinement.” It comes from the Old English word of cūth, meaning “known”—as in, being “in the know” and having the proper knowledge to separate yourself from the uncouth savages.
Example: “Watching reality TV makes us desperate to seek out the few couth people left in the world.”
Buttling is done by the chief male servant of the household, who serves food and drink and is responsible for the silverware. You guessed it—buttle is the back-formation verb of butler.
Example: “If you expect me to buttle your meal to your room, you’ve got another thing coming.”
We’ve all been ushed one time or another by an usher, as the verb ush simply means “to be an usher” or “to escort people to their seats.” Cooks cook and gardeners garden—we know this. Unfortunately, society hasn’t been so willing to recognize that butlers buttle and ushers ush.
Example: “We were late, so I tried to ush my family to their seats as quickly as possible.”
To fly by helicopter is already a flex, so it is no wonder that its pretentious back-formation verb of helicopt never saw lift-off.
Whatever the case, helicopt is officially a recognized word of the English language, albeit it is as rare as they come.
Example: “My husband and I will be helicopting to the wedding. Won’t you join us?”
Like couth to uncouth, kempt is unkempt’s more tasteful sibling, meaning “neatly or tidily kept.” It is technically a back-formation of unkempt, only insofar as people in the 1900s were unaware that kempt was actually a word tracing back over a thousand years—the Old English word of cemd, which meant “combed.”
Example: “Keeping up with Joneses means keeping a well-kempt yard.”