April 24, 2008

What's the Past Tense of "Cheerlead"?

Yglesias writes:

John McCain would like us to believe that he was some kind of uber-prescient early critic of the Bush administration's tactics in Iraq but it's just not so. Barack Obama warned before the war that disaster was likely, McCain cheerleaded for war.

leading a commenter to write:

"Cheerleaded"? My respect for a Harvard education drops another notch...

Now, Yglesias just plain can't spell, but this raises the question: What is the past tense of the verb "cheerlead"? I'm pretty sure that "cheerlead" is backformed from the noun "cheerleader" (apparently first recorded in 1903). According to Steven Pinker, whenever an irregular verb is turned into a noun and then back into a verb, it becomes regular: "flied out" in baseball, "grandstanded." (I call fouls on "high-sticked" and "ringed" [UPDATE: That is, I don't think they're examples of the phenomenon he's discussing], given that the nouns those verbs are derived from aren't etymologically related to the irregular verbs -- note in fact that "ring" meaning "make a ring around" goes back to Old English.)

Blargh earlier mentioned "mini-break"/"mini-broke" in tennis as exception to Pinker's rule. What about the past tense of "cheerlead"? Googlefight tells all: "Cheerleaded" beats "cheerled" 6240 to 3580. So there's more support for "cheerleaded," but "cheerled" is out there; which I think contradicts Pinker's hypothesis. (Admittedly the first few screens for "cheerled" contain very few examples of actual use in sentences, but if you go deeper in people are using it.)

American Heritage recommends "cheerled," on what authority I don't know. Note that the past tenses of "cheerlead," and "cheerleads" are much less common than "cheerleader" -- not surprising, given the origin as a noun -- but also than "cheerleading" and "cheerlead," which I find slightly odd, given that both of those are verbal forms. (There are a lot of false positives in "cheerlead"; "to cheerlead" is about three times more common than "cheerleads," which makes it much less common than "cheerleading.")

Previous discussion of irregular verbs here.

Posted by Matt Weiner at April 24, 2008 12:15 PM

I read Pinker's new book recently, and I seem to recall him conceding that "flew out" exists alongside "flied out". Or maybe that was a discussion on Language Log instead. At any rate, whatever rule there is certainly isn't followed with 100% regularity. But the general tendency is still there. I note that I have the tendency to say "mouses" when talking about the computer peripherals, even though many people claim that "mice" is the appropriate plural there, and this isn't even a case of change of part of speech, but just change of meaning.

Also, do you really say "high-stuck" and "rung" in the relevant contexts? I would certainly say, "Jupiter and Saturn are ringed planets, unlike Earth" and would not say "Jupiter and Saturn are rung planets, unlike Earth".

Posted by: Kenny Easwaran at April 24, 2008 05:21 PM

Also, do you really say "high-stuck" and "rung" in the relevant contexts?

No; my point was that "high-sticked" and "ringed" are not etymologically related to the irregular verbs "stick" and "ring," so it's not surprising that they don't conjugate like them. They're different words.

I guess to really check this out we'd have to see whether there were (a) any pairs of homonymic verbs, neither backformed, where one was irregular and one wasn't; or (b) any pairs of homonymic verbs that were etymologically unrelated but both irregular in the same way. Given that "ringed" goes back to Old English it almost fits (a), but not quite since it probably does derive from the Old English noun for "ring."

Posted by: Matt Weiner at April 24, 2008 08:01 PM

updated in a possibly vain attempt to clarify.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at April 24, 2008 08:03 PM

And congratulations on taking the USC job!

Posted by: Matt Weiner at April 24, 2008 08:05 PM

"flied out" in baseball

Almost every time I read a recap using that phrase I picture the player themselves flying out to whichever field or position is mentioned.

Posted by: washerdreyer at April 25, 2008 09:58 AM

I'll lead the cheers for "led the cheers."

Posted by: Matt's mom at April 28, 2008 03:42 PM
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