English language Etymology Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin

Did you early vote?

Q: President Obama “early voted,” or that’s how he put it, rather than “voted early.” And he’s not the only one. A distinction without a difference? Or do we have a new, and rather awkward, phrasal verb crafted out of the noun phrase “early voting”?

A: As you’ve noticed, President Obama isn’t the only person to say he “early voted” after casting a ballot well ahead of the big day. The verb phrase to “early vote” (past tense “early voted”) was all over the airwaves this fall.

As a contributor to the American Dialect Society’s mailing list recently noted, the MSNBC commentator “Rachel Maddow used the verb ‘to early-vote’ and the past participle ‘early-voted’ many times in the week leading up to the election.”

But this wasn’t the first election cycle for the verb “early vote.” The subject came up in the fall of 2008 as well.

Back then the linguist Arnold Zwicky, writing on both the Language Log and the ADS list, commented on usages like “We early voted Friday” and “Thousands line up to early vote.”

Zwicky also noted a few instances of “to absentee vote” (as in “You can also absentee vote this week”) as well as some for “to advance vote.”

What goes on here?

“These formations look to me not like an unusual placement of the modifiers ‘early’ and ‘absentee,’ ” Zwicky wrote in 2008, “but rather like back-formations” from noun phrases like “early voting,” “early voter,” “absentee voting,” and “absentee voter.”

(A back-formation is a new term formed by dropping part of an old one.)

Zwicky explains why he thinks the verb “early vote” makes sense: “There’s a clear advantage to having such a unit, since ‘vote early’ could refer to voting early on election day, while ‘early vote’ refers specifically to institutionalized procedures for voting before election day.”

We agree with Zwicky about the origin of to “early vote”— that it’s a back-formation from the nouns “early voting” and “early voter.”

Since writing about “early vote,” Zwicky has written about similar formations, which he calls “two-part back-formed verbs.”

In a 2009 post on his own blog, he gave dozens of examples, some familiar and some more recent, including “to gay marry” (from “gay marriage”); “to spellbind” (from “spellbinding”); “to bartend” (from “bartender”); “to fence-sit” (from “fence-sitting”); “to air-condition” (from “air-conditioner”); “to offshore drill” (from “offshore drilling”); “to substitute teach” (from “substitute teacher”), and others.

Check out our books about the English language