The Grammarphobia Blog

Pit stop

Q: I am reading a book about the history of hay fever, and I have noticed the use of the verb “weed” to mean remove weeds. Is there a term to describe verbs that mean getting rid of the nouns they’re built on, e.g., “peel,” “core,” “skin,” and so on?

A: In fact, there is a term for such words. A book called English Verb Classes and Alternations, by Beth Levin, describes these as “pit verbs,” since “pit” is a good example. To pit a cherry is to remove the pit.

Levin gives many examples of such verbs, including “bone,” “core,” “gut,” “hull,” “husk,” “louse,” “milk,” “peel,” “pip,” “pit,” “pod,” “pulp,” “rind,” “scale,” “scalp,” “seed,” “shell,” “shuck,” “skin,” “stem,” “string,” “tail,” “tassel,” “top,” “weed,” “worm,” and “zest.”

She notes that for the most part, what’s being removed comes from a plant or animal. That’s why we run into them so often in cookbooks.

The formation of such verbs is a long tradition in English. “Louse” has been used in this way since the 1400s, “worm” since the 1500s, “gut” since the 1300s, “peel” since the 1400s, “skin” since the 1500s, and so on.

There’s another shoe to be dropped here: the class of words that Levin calls “debone verbs.” (Yes, “debone” is a bona fide word.) These verbs behave the same way as those above, except that they’re formed by adding the prefix “de” to the something that’s being removed.

Again, Levin gives many examples, of which I’ll mention a few: “debone,” “debug,” “declaw,” “defang,” “defeather,” “deflea,” “defog,” “deforest,” “defrost,” “degerm,” “deglaze,” “degrease,” “dehair,” “dehead,” “dehorn,” “dehull,” “dehusk,” “deice,” “delouse,” “desalt,” “destarch,” “detassel,” “detusk,” “devein,” “deworm.”

Note the overlapping verbs: “bone/debone,” “louse/delouse,” “tassel/detassel,” “worm/deworm,” and others. Each twosome means the same thing.

Levin doesn’t mention words like “unthaw” or “unpeel” or “unloosen,” which I wrote about on the blog a few weeks ago, Perhaps the less said about them the better.

Buy our books at a local store,
Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.