Slang affixation: it's all mystery-y-ish-y

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If you haven't picked up a copy of Michael Adams' new book, Slang: The People's Poetry, well, what are you waiting for? For starters, it's a lively and engaging look at English slang and its multitudinous forms. At the same time, it's a thoughtful interrogation of what "slang" actually is, and how we might determine its boundaries. One way that Michael expands traditional notions of slang is in his treatment of affixation, or what he amusingly calls "unorthodox lexifabricology." I talked to Michael about slangy affixation in the second part of my two-part interview with him for the Visual Thesaurus. An excerpt follows below.

VT: In your book, you have a whole section on slangy affixes (prefixes, suffixes, and infixes). This is lexical material that is not easily made into a dictionary entry, necessarily. For instance, there's the -iz- infix (hizzouse for house) and the -diddly- infix (scrum-diddly-umptious). Is your goal there to show that the "poetic" productivity of slang can work on a sort of sub-lexical level?

MA: In a way, I think it's both sub-lexical and super-lexical. The very practice of using infixes like that can be slangy, so that's super-lexical. The same is true with suffixes like -y. The slanginess comes out of the suffixing as much as it comes out of a particular suffix that you would define. But it's also true that because those structures are so flexible and they can be used so readily on the fly or in the moment, it's easy for people to use them to come up with nonce words. They're infinitely productive.

One of the things that I argued in Slayer Slang and argue again in this book is that we think that there are constraints on these suffixes, but there really aren't. Always, eventually, we figure out a way to get outside of those constraints, so that we can make up new words. You'd think if you were looking historically at the language, you'd say, "Well, you can see what some of the rules applying to -y suffixing are. You can't add the -y suffix to a seven-syllable word." But you can, if somebody decides to do it. And in some situation where that could be a slang opportunity, it's not just that somebody could do it, somebody will do it. We just won't know about it.

VT: Or we'll know about it if we Google for it.

MA: Well, exactly, and as I say in the book, one of my most astonishing adventures over the last several years has been just plugging these in, really just saying, "Now surely, this can't take the -y suffix," and then finding out about fifty percent of the time that it can. Fifty percent of the time it doesn't, but there's no natural reason that the words that I tested that haven't appeared with a -y suffix yet couldn't take that -y suffix.

(Read the rest here.)

There's no better proof of Michael's contention about the productivity of the -y suffix than a recent OUPblog post by Mark Peters, whose Wordlustitude blog is a never-ending morpholicious nonce-word-athon. You might think that -y would resist suffixation on words already ending with the /i/ vowel, but you would be wrong. Mark has found a ton of "double-y" words in the wild, like jealousy-y, technology-y, and secret identity-y. The nonce formation that takes the cake, though, is mystery-y-ish-y:

My faith tells me that marital sex, like all acts blessed with holiness, is a great mystery — and from thence comes its beauty.
Well, it WOULD be wouldn’t it? Since Dawn’s not married, she can’t be having marital sex. It’s all mystery-y-ish-y. And she can imagine it’s pretty, if she wants.
(May 23, 2006, Pandagon)

As Mark writes, "After years of weird-word collecting, I'm pretty unfazed by words with multiple, redundant, exuberant suffixes… However, even I was gobsmacked out of my chair when I spotted mystery-y-ish-y." Indeed, the mystery-y-ish-iness of English word formation never ceases to amaze.

(For more on the -y suffix, with examples from Slayer Slang, see my 2006 post, "Feeling all Olympic-y.")



17 Comments

  1. Lazar said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 3:10 am

    I've noticed that Rachel Maddow likes to add -y to things on her show.

  2. Fred said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 4:59 am

    Y?

  3. Richard M Buck said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 8:34 am

    Oh, for a context that would demand the coinage Hawaii-y

  4. Mark P said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 8:38 am

    There seems to be some appeal to making the word as long as possible. For example, when I hear commentators talk about "Islamicism" (I seem to hear that only from a certain segment of commentators (or would that be commentatorists?)), I think "Islamicisticism." I Googled "islamcisiticsm" and got one hit, so I didn't coin it.

  5. Terry Collmann said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    Disestablishmentarianismish-y

  6. jfruh said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 9:43 am

    One advantage of having these words on blogs and such is that nobody is actually expected to pronounce them. Has anyone studied the phenomenon of people working exclusively in writing generating words with standard suffixes whose meaning is obvious but which would be difficult or impossible to speak aloud casually?

  7. Jonathan Cohen said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    Isn't "scrum-diddly-umptious" an instance of tmesis?

  8. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 10:41 am

    @jfruh: Mark Liberman touched on the (un)pronounceability of online-isms in his post, "Own, pone, poon, pun, pwone, whatever."

    @Jonathan: In the book, Michael Adams follows the distinctions made by James B. McMillan in his 1980 article, "Infixing and Interposing in English" (American Speech 55:163-183). For McMillan, infixes are pragmatically meaningful but not lexically meaningful, even if the inserted material is something you'd find in a dictionary (as with expletive infixation like -fucking- or -blooming-). True tmesis is more of a poetic device, such as Gerard Manly Hopkins' wind-lilylocks-laced or e.e. cummings' democra(caveat emptor)cy.

  9. Dan T. said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    Can't add -y to a seven-syllable word? How antidisestablishmenty!

  10. Dan T. said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 11:48 am

    (I see somebody got a variant of the "disestablishment" root in above, though without the "anti".)

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    @ Mark P., for a similar example back during the Cold War era I knew a fellow who liked to say "Communistic" because he thought it had a more pejorative feel than "Communist." Maybe the next step would have been "Communistical"? I'm partial to "Bolshevistic" myself. (Note that here the suffix has an intensifying feel, 180 degrees from the fuzziness and decreased specificity conveyed by the -y suffix in the examples given.)

    The scrump-diddly-umptious example is odd because there's a duplication of "ump" on both sides of the infix. I don't think that's how it works standardly with infixing "blooming" or more vulgar equivalents — in fact I'm not sure if you can gramatically infix "blooming" etc. into scrumptious at all because there's not the necessary (if I remember the "rule" correctly) type of discernable internal morpheme boundary. Was the pattern shown by scrump-diddly-umptious attested in the wild before it was popularized by Ned Flanders?

  12. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    June 25, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: Scrumdiddlyumptious is attested as far back as 1962, at the time of the rerelease of the Disney movie "The Lady and the Tramp." It was further popularized by the 1971 movie "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory." See my ADS-L post for early examples. (In a followup, Jonathan Lighter notes that the 1933 Dictionary of American Slang includes scrumdumpish and scrumptedidleous. And then there's scrumdiddleyishuss and scrumpdillyishus…)

    My ADS-L post was inspired by the paper presentation of Mark Peters at the '06 ADS meetings, "In-diddly-fixing Innovations: The Ned Flanders Effect," which Michael Adams draws on for his discussion.

  13. Andrew M said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    @ Richard M Buck:

    "The flower pattern on your shirt, it's so… Hawaii-y"

  14. Addendum said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

    I have had occasion to append "-y" to a string of words, and can assure you that it produces an abrasively-filled-with-amusement-y feeling.

  15. Dave Kathman said,

    June 26, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    Here's an example from the Onion: "crunch-timey"

    http://www.theonion.com/content/node/31270

  16. Terry Collmann said,

    June 27, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    Sorry, I meant to say "antidisestablishmentarianismish-y" but forgot the "anti".

    I'm not sure you can say "antidis-diddly-establishmentarianistic", though …

  17. Charles Wells said,

    June 29, 2009 @ 4:25 pm

    I am not convinced that people who add -y are consciously being slangy. Same goes for -ish, as in "See you noonish". Could be the English language is creeping towards becoming agglutinativy.

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