Thursday, July 23, 2015


A few weeks ago, I saw someone I follow on Tumblr use the neologism “conversate” in place of “converse” and got to thinking about the process of “back formation” - the process of creating a new lexeme (roughly, a new word) by removing actual or supposed affixes.  Since many words that end in the suffix “ation”, the way “conversation” does, do derive from root words that end in “ate”, (think dominate/domination, navigate/navigation, celebrate/celebration) “conversate” isn’t a bad guess if you don’t know that the word you are looking for is “converse”. actually dates it back to 1970-75, which surprises me. I would have been willing to bet that “conversate” didn’t exist back in the 1990′s.
There are a number of words, however with the suffix “ation” that do not have roots that end with “ate”. We have imagine/imagination, accredit/accreditation, denote/denotation, discolor/discoloration, expect/expectation, to name a few. I wonder if we are ever going to see the use of “imaginate”?
I think we are stuck with “conversate”. It sounds both less formal and more extensive than “converse” does. Besides, there is precedence. In American English, at least, we have both the word “oblige” and the word “obligate”, and each takes the noun form “obligation”. “Obligate” is also an adjective, but the verb form dates back around five centuries, according to my googling, and has been found in the novel Pamela, contradicting the charge that it is purely an Americanism. There are a few guesses as to why we have both words, but the one I find most convincing is that “obligate”, like “conversate” and “orientate”, is a back formation, in the case of “obligate” from the word “obligation”.
Interestingly enough, though, my reading also revealed that in American law, at least, the words “obligate” and “oblige” have different degrees of force, and it does make a difference which one you use.
So maybe a few hundred years from now,  linguists will be arguing over the  the nuances of using “conversate” versus “converse”. So be it.
I just hope we never, ever get the word “imaginate”.