back and forth

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at STANFORD.EDU
Sat Nov 29 17:22:45 UTC 2008

Victor Steinbok notes the nominal "backing and forthing", in the
National Review:

The Muslim side had sought to limit the scope of the talks to purely
“theological” issues, specifically excluding any concrete and specific
concerns like the plight of shrinking Christian minorities in Muslim-
majority states. After much backing and forthing, an agreement was
reached to split the difference, with the first day devoted to
“theological and spiritual fundamentals,” the second to “the dignity
of the human person and mutual respect.”

this struck me as entirely ordinary, but it seems not to be in the
OED.  plenty of examples to be found: 432 reduced [with "very similar"
entries omitted] google web hits for {"backing and forthing"}.  most
of these are for nominals, e.g.

   ... it was the slippery slope as his inane, "I voted for the war
before I voted against it" reminded every concerned voter of his
backing and forthing ...

but a few are for a present-participial verb:

   He had driven on the raised sidewalk to bypass the line of cars and
spent a good ten minutes backing and forthing to fit into the parking
space, ...

some are spelled as three separate words, some hyphenated:

   Since there is so much backing-and-forthing on the timing of new
construction purchases, I would like to remind buyers of two factors
that ...

and there are straightforward examples of "back and forth" as a verb.
i got 43 reduced hits for "backed and forthed", e.g.:

   The girls have backed and forthed a lot since then and are good
friends. Making that kind of connection is precisely why playdates are
so important, ...

including at least one with a dummy-"it" object:

   For a few months there I backed and forthed it between canaries,
finches and parakeets.

meanwhile, the variants with marking on only the final element,
"forth", are even more frequent: 748 reduced hits for {"back and

   All this back and forthing between subject matter (fashion, beauty,
men, celebrity...) gives me a bit of a confusion headache ...

and 84 for {"back and forthed"}:

   janni kicked off a discussion of rules and magic, where she back-
and-forthed on the concept that "all magic must have rules, and the
writer should know them ...

all of these are based on the adverbial "back and forth", which has
been verbed, and can then be inflected on its final element or on both
conjuncts (cf. "up and went" / "upped and went" and similar
examples).  the -ing forms are then available for use as nominals, as
for verbs in general.

it's possible that the verb "back and fill" 'to go backward and
forward' (and the nominal "backing and filling") played a role in this
development.  both this verb and this nominal *are* in the OED. this
verb also allows inflection on the final element only:

   We back and filled up and down most of the day in anticipation of
President Elect Obama’s speech. The market chopped around during and
after the speech ...

   With that said, there is a good chance that the market will see
some back and filling on Monday and Tuesday.

(very few occurrences of final-inflection-only for clear verbals, more
for the nominal "back and filling")


The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list