All Words Were Once “Made Up”

Real Words

What makes a word a "real word?" It's not as cut and dry as you'd imagine. New words are made up all the time, and as long as they gain traction and have distinct meaning, we consider them "real words."

For example, take the word televise. It's a newer word created from television (which had to be created first in order to televise anything). This is called a backformationLike televise, many backtracked words are successful, but others (gruntled) fail to secure common language real estate. So, to honor those words that haven't stuck around in our day-to-day speech, we present you with our favorite unpopular backformations.

Aggress

A backformation of aggression, aggress means “to attack first” or “to begin a fight or quarrel.” In existence since around the 1700s, the verb has a smooth logic to it: committing an aggression, or an offensive act, requires an initial attack. Combatants knew this 300 years ago and took some morphological steps back to create the new word.

How to Use It Now: “Don’t you dare aggress at the bar tonight; you’ve been in way too many brawls lately.”

Buttle

To buttle or not to buttle—a conundrum only a butler could answer. It was likely a butler who backformed the verb in the 1860s, while doing his buttling. Since most people don’t live in Downton Abby, we’ll explain that buttling is done by the chief male servant of the household, who serves food and drink, and is responsible for the silverware.

How to Use It Now: “If you think I’m going to buttle your dinner to your room, you’ve got another thing coming. Get your own food!”

Couth

If uncouth means rude and obnoxious, couth is the much-needed opposite. Being couth means “possessing good manners,” and “demonstrating sophistication and refinement.” It traces to the Old English cūth, meaning “known”—as in, being ‘in the know’, or having the proper knowledge to distinguish yourself from uncouth brutes.

How to Use It Now: “Watching reality TV makes us desperate to seek out the few couth people left in the world.” Or, if you’re inspired to be more playful with backformation: “Of all the qualities I desire in a person, couthness is the most important.”

Contracept

Unsurprisingly, contracept—the backformation of contraception—was birthed (pardon the pun) in the 1960s. This word, meaning “to prevent pregnancy,” arose at a pivotal time in history, when the first birth control pill was approved by the US government.

The terms “using contraception” and “contracepting” are essentially the same. Sometimes a newer backtracked word, like contracept, won’t gain popularity because an existing word or phrase with the same meaning (“use contraception”) is already familiar with people. Old habits die hard. But if you’re ready for contracept to be reborn…

How to Use It Now: “We should respect a couple’s choice to contracept. Their bodies are their business!”

Helicopt

As with many less-than-successful backformations, helicopt lost air because the way less pretentious “fly by helicopter” already existed (who knew “flying” could be so down-to-earth?). Even so, helicopt is still considered a real, if rarely used, word.

How to Use It Now (if you dare): “The Rich family will be helicopting to the Caymans for vacation. Mm, how fah-bulous.”

Kempt

Like couth to uncouth, kempt is unkempt’s well-groomed sibling that plays by the rules and keeps clean. In fact that’s exactly what kempt signifies: “neatly or tidily kept.”

Kempt is a backformation of unkempt, but that’s only because people in the 1900s didn’t realize that kempt was actually a word tracing back over a thousand years. The Old English word cemd meant “combed.” No matter one’s rank in society, with a comb, a person could at least make an effort to look tidy and presentable.

How to Use It Now: “Walk down any haircare aisle in the grocery store, and it’s plain to see we’re kind of obsessed with being kempt.” Beyond hair: “Keeping up with Joneses means keeping a well-kempt yard.”

Lech

Let’s face it, homo sapiens have urges. Strong, sometimes sexual urges. Man’s constant struggle to master carnal cravings is a time-worn refrain of life. Mastering those urges doesn’t come easy, which is why so many terms exist for people who fail at it. Like lech, the shortened slang backformation of lecher. Apparently lecher (meaning “lewd man”), was such an applicable word it had to be condensed for faster shouting purposes.

How to Use It Now: “Bella complained of undue attention, but she didn’t seem to know what she was walking into at The Lech Lounge.” (Club-owners, we don’t advise this name!)

Nake

The verb nake (“to make/get naked”) is a backformation of the adjective nakedNake was first used in the early 1300s, but being or becoming naked is a universal human condition, so other words like nakedize appeared later to mean the same thing.

Here we go again: Human beings are sexual beings, and new words like nake and nakedize were backformed, possibly to describe processes related to sexy times. But, to be perfectly honest, we can't really know what people were thinking back then.

How to Use It Now: “Naking isn’t just for sex, of course. Everybody nakes to shower, and sometimes (unnervingly) at the doctor’s office.”

Sipid

Sipid is a backformation of insipid, first recorded in the 1600s. But it’s not technically the opposite of insipid as we understand it today (insipid means “lacking stimulating qualities”).

Like kempt and unkempt, sipid is way older than people may have realized when they backformed it in the 1600s. The word traces to the Latin word sapid, meaning “flavorful” or “having a pleasing taste.” That’s exactly what sipid means today, even though it’s not a frequently heard word.

How to Use It Now: “Grandma’s bread pudding is so sipid, but adding chocolate chips would take it over the top!”

Ush

“May I ush you to your seat?” is a witty invitation an usher might convey to theater-goers or wedding guests. The verb ush quite simply means “to be an usher” or “to escort people to their seats.”

Cooks cook, gardeners garden, butlers buttle and ushers ush. It’s not hard to see why butlers and ushers wanted to cut to the chase with their verbs. Eliminate the long-windedness of “doing what butlers or ushers do” and simply “buttle” or  “ush.” Makes perfect sense!

How to Use It Now: “The lights of the movie theater dimmed and I tried to ush my kids to their seats as fast as I could. They’re afraid of the dark, so it was a process.”