I chose this word, liaise, as a good example of a word that comes into our language through a method known as back formation. Back formation is a term which means that the word has been derived from an already existing word, and has been adapted to a new use.
In this case, liaise derives from the word liaison, a term common enough to be in use throughout out language. It means communication and contact between groups or unit. (World English Dictionary.) We most commonly associate the word liaison as a military term used to identify the act of searching out and gathering information about the enemy, and perhaps even making contact and forming an alliance with them.
In World War I, we are told, British soldiers began using the term liase as a verb meaning to undertake liaison methods. You can see how the verb form came into the English language (from French) through a “back door” method. That is what we mean by saying such a word is a back formation. It isn’t a direct creation; it’s somewhat of an obtuse method of creating a word.
We see this all the time in American English. Examples given are couth from the word uncouth; euthanize, from the word euthanasia; or even edit, from the word editor. The one that always amuses me is the word burgle, which is a back formation from the word burglar. It just strikes me funny that a newspaper article reads that “The two men burgled the mansion, getting away with silver and gold pieces.” It sounds too much like the word bungled.
I suspect that the same is true for some who read our word for today, liaise, in a Pentagon report that “the Seal Team was sent out to liase the situation and report back to headquarters.” It just sounds like an unusual comment for such a serious enterprise.
Another meaning for the word liaison is for an illicit affair between two lovers. I would ask you to read the sentence, “Howard set out to liaise the cocktail lounge to see if there was the possibility of hooking up with a woman for the night” without smiling. It sounds silly.
I don’t think I’ll be using the term liaise frequently. But it was helpful in making the point about back formations.
Photo Credit: Texas Star Alliance