The Terminator liked to morph too. . .

The Grammarnatrix’s praise of dictionaries last week, and the Oxford English Dictionary in particular, reminded me of some time spent with the OED in the Concord High School library (which had by then morphed into the media center, I believe). 

Morph – there’s an interesting word. It does not appear as a verb in my own go-to dictionary, Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate, the one the pink cover that sat in every classroom during my teaching days. Morph there is only a noun, a back formation of morpheme, around since 1947. Since my Webster’s Ninth comes from 1988, the verb morph is of very recent vintage.

A little thought suggests its origin. Metamorphosis goes back to 1533, and once you have a noun like that, someone is bound to come up with a verb in order to save space. So by 1576 you didn’t have to write “The tadpole underwent metamorphosis.” You could just say that it metamorphosed (many people would probably say that it metamorphosized, but that is absent from Webster’s Ninth, and when I typed it just now, that telltale red underlining showed up on my document).

Anyway, to properly define a verb by using its infinitive form, to morph is clearly a variant – a back formation – of to metamorphose.

I started out to write about a simpler verb: to take. Morph made its way into the parenthetical observation of my first sentence, and there was a whole other column, unplanned and unanticipated when I began. That shows why words are so fascinating. If you don’t believe me, look up the 58-word definition of mirage, which I noticed while flipping pages to get to morph. And don’t me started on serendipity.

So I still have take for another week, not to mention how it is possible for a dictionary to sit somewhere. As we continue to examine the intricacies of dictionaries, happy discoveries are undoubtedly  in store for us all, Grammarnator and Grammarnatrix alike.

Ben Conant

Author: Ben Conant

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