The Grammarphobia Blog

A conversation stopper

Q: I’ve been hearing the word “conversate” around my office lately. Is it a legitimate substitute for “converse”? I need your expertise!

A: “Conversate” is not legit. The proper word is “converse.”

I suspect your co-workers are using (perhaps humorously) an inventive back-formation from “conversation.” Although I got 201,000 hits when I googled “conversate,” many were complaints about the usage.

Back-formations (new words formed by dropping prefixes or suffixes from older ones) are pretty common in English. Examples of verbs that began as back-formations from nouns are “diagnose” (from “diagnosis”), “escalate” (from “escalator”), and “babysit” (from “babysitter”).

Among back-formations that are often frowned upon by American usage experts are “incent” (from “incentive”), “enthuse” (from “enthusiasm”), and “orientate” (a mid-19th century back-formation from “orientation,” which itself is derived from a verb, “orient”).

Another example of a humorous back-formation that’s not (yet) in the dictionary is “adolesce” (from “adolescence”), as in “He hasn’t finished adolescing yet.”

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