Isms, gasms, etc.

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The linguistic point that is so interesting about the PartiallyClips cartoon strip that Mark just pointed you to is that the "suffixes" involved are not all suffixes. The endings of the words are -like, -esque, -ward, -proof, -(a)thon, -riffic, -master, -go-round, -ism, -kabob, -(o)phile, -(i)licious, and -gasm. Of these, I think I'd say (it is a theoretical judgment) that only -like, -esque, -ward, and -ism should be called suffixes.

I think words ending in -proof, -master, and -kabob are best treated as compounds (formed of two roots, like treehouse, where tree isn't a prefix and house isn't a suffix). The element spelled -phile or -ophile is a Greek-derived combining form (neither a suffix nor a word, but a separate word-formation element nonetheless). And the rest, most interestingly, represent cases of what Arnold Zwicky and I have called playful or expressive word formation. The endings aren't really separate elements at all in the word formation system; they are salient pieces of words reattached where they don't belong in a way that represents monkeying with the language system and having fun with it, not simply employing it. English has a suffix of the form -ism, certainly; but (Reginald in the strip is wrong) it doesn't have a suffix of the form -gasm. At least, not yet (serious morphology from little jokes can grow). We discuss the distinction between plain and expressive derivational morphology, and lay out a few of its characteristics, in the paper that you can find here (PDF copy of a paper published in the proceedings of the Berkeley Linguistic Society in 1987). We have taken some flak from people who think we are making an invidious and untenable distinction between "proper" language and mere messing about; but we have given our reasons, and criteria, and we haven't changed our mind.


  1. Sid Smith said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 6:40 am

    "English has a suffix of the form -ism, certainly; but it doesn't have a suffix of the form -gasm."

    Yes, but you can't help admiring "wargasm", Herman Kahn's horrifying description of an all-out thermonuclear exchange.

    (It also, thank you Google, turns out to be the name of a computer game and pop band.)

  2. Kylopod said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 6:47 am

    Our popular culture is so mired in portmanteau words that these combinations come naturally. So pseudo-suffixes like -gasm function essentially as abbreviations, meant to suggest the entire words from which they are derived. If we were forced to guess, most of us would interpret "badgergasm" to mean a "badger having an orgasm" or an "orgasm with the qualities of a badger" or an "orgasm from thinking of a badger." The joke itself is a non sequitur, but it does follow this line of thinking.

  3. Adrian Mander said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 8:33 am

    I'm familiar with "nerdgasm" (which IIRC means something like "a state of maximal nerdish excitement") and I see that it returns 57,600 google hits. So, there's that.

    [Yes, there are many hits. But I hope you don't think that massive use of this little piece of word-formation humor decides the question of whether it's a suffix or a combining form or whatever. The thing about verbal art and verbal play is that no matter how many people play, it's still play. (Until in some future generation, perhaps, it stops being.) At the moment, as I judge it, the game is that you can add gasm on the ends of words as if it were a suffix such that a "Xgasm" is defined as "state of intense pleasure and/or excitement caused by X". But it's only a game. —GKP]

  4. Ray Girvan said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 9:36 am

    I've noticed braingasm, traingasm, railgasm, bookgasm and musicgasm.

  5. Neal Goldfarb said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    And of course, Orszagasm, the blog devoted to Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Motto: "Putting the OMG back in the OMB."

  6. William Lockwood said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    It never occurred to me to define "nerdgasm" before, but I'd say that's about as good a definition as someone could come up with.
    That said, it sounds a little like you're talking about lasers – and I'm not certain that comparison isn't worth looking into.

  7. Amy Stoller said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 10:07 am

    There is a chain of stores in NYC called Shoegasm. They got the name from an episode of Sex and the City.

  8. Zwicky Arnold said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    There are several distinguishable phenomena here. To start with, there's ordinary word formation (derivation and compounding) that yields words that are in some way silly, because they're hard to contextualize or likely to be transitory: badgerism, wafflesque. Then there are playful uses of ordinary derivational affixes, extending them to contexts where they don't usually go: -ness in schoolness, mathness. And playful portmanteaus (not all portmanteau words are playful, but many are). And "liberated" elements in playful compound-like words, though it can be hard to tell whether we're looking at a portmanteau or at a word with an element that has been reanalyzed from portmanteaus (as in the case of -gasm); see my discussion of "libfixes" here. (Of course, different cases might have different statuses for different people.)

    So there's some play around the edges. But I still think that it's important to make a broad distinction between two sorts of morphology.

    (Note that "plain morphology" and "expressive morphology" are just labels for these two broad sorts of morphology, not definitions of the types.)

  9. James D said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    And, with my linguistic pedant's hat firmly on, I'll add "-oholic" to the list of playful pseudo-suffixes: there is of course no such substance as chocohol.

    [Absolutely right. Adding -(o)holic is a good example of what Arnold and I call expressive or playful morphological derivation. Adding -(e)(t)eria to create retail outlet names (basketeria, sexeteria, …) is another of a similar sort. Notice that you sort of craft the ending to fit the stem, by choosing or not choosing the parenthesized linging segments. —GKP]

    And I would suggest that the "-phile" suffix may be experiencing a dip in popularity, thanks to certain British tabloid fish-wrappings' obsession with paedophilia.

  10. Supergrunch said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:09 am

    I was about to suggest "-oholic". Seems to me it's becoming a productive affix, with forms like "chocoholic" and "workoholic" being so commonplace that they aren't really jokes any more. Of course, as James D notes, it originates from a perhaps intentionally incorrect morphological decomposition.

  11. Christopher Henrich said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:28 am


    Google tells me it has 2310 hits. It's even in the Urban Dictionary.

  12. Zwicky Arnold said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:30 am

    There's now an inventory of postings on playful word formation, on Language Log and my blog, here.

    There's a compendium of combining forms, from several sources, in Michael Quinion's Ologies and Isms, on-line here. The combining form –oholic is on the list.

  13. Jens Fiederer said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:35 am

    Of course, there is also the abbreviated "asm" suffix used by Rush Limbaugh for "Gorbasm" (when Gorbachev was popular).

    No "g" in that one.

  14. GAC said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    I have also seen joygasm. It seems that if -gasm isn't productive, it soon will be.

  15. oral said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    As a Maryland basketball fan, I've been using "vasgasm" for a few years now.

  16. Stan Carey said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    A search for gasmgasm points to a bunch of Discordian websites, where I learned that GASMGASM is the mission to tell people about OMGASM, which is Operation Mindfuck: Golden Apple Seed Missions. Examples of GASMs include Postergasm, Colbertgasm, Learngasm, Intermittensgasm, and Digggasm.

    GASMGASM is part of GASMGASMGASM — the mission to tell others about GASMGASM — and GASMGASMGASMGASM is "the mission to never, ever, STFU".

  17. Mark Peters said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

    I've found "-gasm" to be wildly productive. I think this is my favorite nonce example ever: ectoplasmgasm

  18. John Cowan said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    The Jargon File's prefatory matter discusses several kinds of expressive morphology (though not by that name) which do not appear in your 1987 paper:

    Doubling a verb to create a peculiar sentence type: Lose, lose 'This is a losing situation', Win, win, Chomp, chomp, etc.

    Distorting proper names to insult their referents: Microsloth, Windoze, Internet Exploder. The phrase for hysterical raisins 'for historical reasons' also belongs here, as the original phrase is often used to justify infelicities.

    The suffix /pi/, a novel inflection that puts verbs (often verbs that are nouned, often with strange meanings) into the interrogative mood, otherwise unheard-of in English: /ˈfudpi/ 'Do you want food?', /ˈsplɪtpi ˈsup/ 'Does anyone want to split a bowl of soup with me?' (with a pun on split-pea soup).

    Many examples are also provided of "extending [affixes] to contexts where they don't usually go": mysteriosity, dubiosity, ferrosity, obviosity; winnitude, lossitude, lameitude, disgustitude; hackification; bogotify 'make bogus'. In some cases, inflectional affixes are similarly overapplied, such as cabeese 'cabooses', boxen 'computers, seen generically as mere "boxes"', frobbotzim (plural of frobbotz 'small component of uncertain purpose'), Unices 'variants of Unix', semicola 'semicolons', polygoose 'mongooses'. It's not clear that the last is in active use.

    [John, as you surely understand, the point of the 1987 paper was not to catalogue all the types of expressive morphology that there are, even in English. (An encyclopedia of expressive morphology would be a monumental task.) All we tried to do was motivate the broad distinction and give a (very) few illustrations, of different types. —AMZ]

  19. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 1:16 pm

    And then there's eargasm, used as the title of a 1976 Johnnie Taylor album, among other things.

  20. mollymooly said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

    The joy of exploration: Vascodagasm.

  21. Stan Carey said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    I was about to call the original or quintessential -gasm construction (whatever it might be) the "urgasm", but I had second thoughts after visiting the Urban Dictionary.

  22. Micaya said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    And the popular (leastways in my circle) 'foodgasm'.

  23. Dan T. said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 1:39 pm

    But how often does anybody in everyday life need to refer to even one mongoose, let alone multiple… mongooses? mongeese?

  24. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 3:05 pm

    GKP: "serious morphology from little jokes can grow".
    I like it. One or two examples, please?

    [Well, I wanted to concede that it is just possible gasm might become a routine combining form in a hundred years or so. But it's a concession. It's not a point I would want to push. I cannot think of any definite case, though I am reminded that if you look up the origin of the only two words ending in -izen "inhabitant of" you find that denizen appears to have been based on citizen by a kind of loose analogy that might originally have been playful. And I see plenty of signs that -gate (which is much more productive) might head that way, and become (in five or ten more decades) an ordinary non-jocular derivational suffix such that Xgate means "contemporary cover-up or similar scandal associated with X". So that might turn out to be a case. —GKP]

  25. Kylopod said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    there is of course no such substance as chocohol

    Homer Simpson: "I'm a rage-oholic, I need some rage-ohol."

  26. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

    Let me answer my own question. I suppose you mean such blends as "workaholic", "televangelist", etc., which may have been humorous when first coined but are no longer regarded as funny, and from which are derived such combining forms as tele- and -aholic (or -oholoc).

  27. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

    There's a nice puzzle you can stump people with – name a word that begins with "w" and ends with "c". It's pretty tough, because most "w" words in English are Germanic, and most Germanic words ending with /k/ spell it "ck". Ending with "c" tends to be a sign of being Latinate, and the Romance languages almost never use "w". So of course, "workaholic" is most likely either the only example, or by far the most common example – it uses playful construction to put together a Germanic word and a Latinate ending.

    (I'm sure you could create other examples, like "wombatriffic" or the like, but "workaholic" is the only one I can think of having heard multiple times.)

  28. Army1987 said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 6:28 pm


  29. Russell said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 8:29 pm


    Cheating, but: BNC search gave mostly workaholic, as predicted. Lots of "wc" which I suppose doesn't count. Then there's wholistic, which when it happens appears to be a typo or a marketing-ish coinage.

  30. Shoebox said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    Hey, guys.

    Thanks for acknowledging my existence again, and thanks for the discussion here!

    I actually did agonize a bit over what to call these words. I couldn't figure out a term that properly described these sorts of playful (I like that) word formations, so I went with a broad interpretation of "suffix" for this purpose.

    I hope the fact that I've evoked serious discussion of the term "badgergasm" exonerates me to some degree. "Orgasm with the qualities of a badger" made my night.

    Tim "Shoebox" Crist
    PartiallyClips / Worm Quartet

    [No criticism intended at all. It's completely natural to use the term "suffix" in a general way. For computer scientists a suffix is just a string x that occurs in a string of the form wx, which accords with your use perfectly (a suffix is a sequence of letters that begins somewhere inside a word and continues to the end). My point was that once you look at the morphology, things get more interesting. It immediately becomes clear that you can't use the computer science definition: you want to say that kindnesses ends in two suffixes (-ness and -es), but then of course the first of them doesn't extend to the end of the word so it can't be a suffix in the computer science sense. So you dig in a bit more and discover the difference between derivational suffixes (which can make a noun like kindness out of an adjective like kind) and inflectional suffixes (which do things like taking a noun and forming a plural for it). And then you start noticing further differences, and pretty soon nothing will satisfy you but taking a word formation course, and soon you're reading the whole of chapters 18 and 19 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, you're subscribing to Word Structure, and reading work by Greg Stump and Grev Corbett and Laurie Bauer and Arnold Zwicky, and you're a morphologist. (That's if you don't decide to become a famous cartoonist instead, of course.) —GKP]

  31. Nathan Myers said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:06 pm

    I always have to pause and think before I disagree with Prof. Pullam in public [— not long enough; anyone who calls me "Pullam" in public needs to stop and think a little longer… —GKP] , and the pause and the thought are both good for me and for, I hope, the public. But I'm having a very hard time identifying an objective distinction between real and play affixes that would be meaningful to the population that uses both, apparently, interchangeably. I can see that maintaining such a distinction may be important to help Prof. Pullum[that's better] and his colleagues avoid using what turn out to be evanescent examples in publications, but that doesn't seem sufficient. One linguist's serious morphology is another's little joke.

    The only distinction I have adduced is that, perhaps, you won't find one playful construction used as the basis for another playful construction. Thus, "orgasm-schmorgasm", but not "nerdgasm-schmerdgasm". Finding such a construction — "laserteria-o-rama"? — argues, perhaps, for what might have been taken as playfulness to actually be mature in the speech community in question.

    [We did give quite specific criteria. —GKP]

  32. Amy Reynaldo said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:20 pm

    A couple years ago, Nancy Friedman wrote about the suffixification of -kini. After the bikini came Rudi Gernreich's topless monokini, as if the two-piece bikini were a -kini of the bi- variety. Tankini and the Burqini followed in more recent years.

  33. Garrett Wollman said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:46 pm

    Not being a linguist myself (morphological or any other variety), I must admit that I'm at a loss as to the distinction Prof. Pullum makes between a 'true' suffix and a mere "combining form". In my profession, a suffix is any string of symbols at the end of a longer string of symbols.

    [Sigh. You didn't do the reading before coming to class, did you? Chapter 19 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would be a good place to get the basics. As I commented above when answering Shoebox, computer science uses a very general definition (x is a suffix in any string wx). But once you look at the details of morphology, it gets much more interesting. —GKP]

  34. Acilius said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 9:57 am

    I certainly hope "badgergasm," in the sense of "an orgasm having the qualities of a badger," does catch on. I'm rather surprised, though, that a Google search for "badgergasm Wisconsin" doesn't produce any hits relating to the University of Wisconsin's sports teams, known as Badgers. An absence soon to be rectified, I'm sure.

  35. Theodore said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    Regarding the choice of the word "suffix" to describe these formations: I gave Tim Crist the benefit of the doubt and attributed the choice to the character in the strip.

    What struck me more about the strip was that for a uselessness contest, many of the entries are quite useful:




    Sphinctophile I know that one's a stretch, but at least it's safe for work.

  36. Kylopod said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    One thing I've noticed is that there are certain portmanteau words where the pieces function as affixes, and other times where they function as abbreviated forms of the words they come from.

    For example, a telethon could be described as a television marathon, and a blaxploitation movie could be described as a black exploitation movie. But a workaholic isn't a "work alcoholic," and a chocoholic isn't a "chocolate alcoholic." There, -oholic is functioning as an actual suffix meaning "one who is addicted to."

  37. Aaron Toivo said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 1:28 pm

    A topic I would love to see explored somewhere in detail is playful syntax. It seems reasonable to wonder whether the type of linguistic playfulness seen in the use of these 'suffixes' might not happen with larger structures as well, and I'm pretty it can. One example might be lolcat-ese (which, it has been noted on LL in the past, is not mere rule-breaking but a differing set of rules: it's possible for a sentence to be ungrammatical lolcat-ese.)

    Within my online "speech community" certain bizarre-seeming constructions are often used, that seem to exist somewhere in the gray limbo between playfulness, slang, and memes. Characterizing them would require a long reply that'd stray too far from the original topic here, but if anyone knows of a good treatment of playful syntax, I'd really like to see it.

  38. Faldone said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    Prof. Pullum's suggestion that we read Chapters 18 and 19 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is of no help to those of us who do not have access to it in brick and mortar form and who end up here when we try to follow his link. I have read some excerpts from that fine tome and still disagree with him on the notion that "bush" can be a preposition, but that's not a subject for this thread.

  39. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    The only -gasm coinage I ever heard that I thought was clever was by a woman I knew, who said that she could come both vaginally and clitorally and therefore had eithergasms.

  40. Brandon C. Loudermilk said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

    Interesting word formation on a mixed martial arts website. The word is romo (n.) – a photograph that was digitally altered for humorous effects. Example can be seen here (

    As far as I can tell, this is the derivation (and all intermediate forms are attested):
    Photoshop (n.) – Software used for digital editing
    Photoshop (v.) – using above or similar software for digital picture editing.
    Photochop (n, v.) – digitally editing a photo for humorous effects
    Homochop – portmanteau form – editing a photo to make it "gay" for humorous effects.
    Romoshop (romochop) – Same as above, but mixed martial arts specific. The Gracie family (from Brazil) which dominated the scene in the early years, all had names that are spelled with an buy are pronounced [h]. Includes Royce, Royler, Ryan, Reyson, Reylson, Rolls, etc. ad infinitum (
    Romo – clipped version of above

  41. Amy Stoller said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

    @mollymooly: Thank you for Vascodagasm. I wonder if dachshunds have badgergasms.

  42. peter said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 4:03 am

    There's also "Celebdaq", which takes as its final syllable the final syllable of "Nasdaq", was was once an acronym.

  43. Tenderfoot said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 4:31 am

    sargasm: a frenzy of snark

  44. Mark Etherton said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    What I would have thought might be the canonical description of "playful or expressive word formation" is in 'Le père Goriot'. Balzac begins the early scene round the dining table in the Maison Vauquer with:

    "Les pensionnaires, internes et externes, arrivèrent les uns après les autres, en se souhaitant mutuellement le bonjour, et se disant de ces riens qui constituent, chez certaines classes parisiennes, un esprit drolatique dans lequel la bêtise entre comme élément principal, et dont le mérite consiste particulièrement dans le geste ou la prononciation. Cette espèce d'argot varie continuellement. La plaisanterie qui en est le principe n'a jamais un mois d'existence. Un évènement politique, un procès en cour d'assises, une chanson des rues, les farces d'un acteur, tout sert à entretenir ce jeu d'esprit qui consiste surtout à prendre les idées et les mots comme des volants, et à se les renvoyer sur des raquettes. La récente invention du Diorama, qui portait l'illusion de l'optique à un plus haut degré que dans les Panoramas, avait amené dans quelques ateliers de peinture la plaisanterie de parler en rama, espèce de charge qu'un jeune peintre, habitué de la pension Vauquer, y avait inoculée."

    In the rest of the scene, the characters come up with santérama, froitorama, soupeaurama (to which Madame Vauquer says “Pardonnez−moi, monsieur, c'est une soupe aux choux”), Goriorama, cornorama, monsieur le marquis de Rastignacorama, patriarchalorama, bouteillorama, sexorama, A la portorama, la comtesse de Restaurama and mortorama.

  45. James C. said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    In Hawaiʻi there is enough talk in English (excluding Pidgin a.k.a. HCE) about mongooses and enough use of the irregular plural “mongeese” to make it tend towards the ordinary and not a joke. It depends on the speech community of course, and linguists here are probably not the best community to sample. A few of my non-linguist friends do use it seriously, at least occasionally: “I think I just saw some mongeese behind your tent, better pack up the food before going to sleep.” Others syntactically avoid the plural: “I think there’s a mongoose or two under your car”, or use a zero plural: “when we came back there were two mongoose living below our house”, as well as the expected but still somewhat uncomfortable regular plural: “Kauaʻi doesn’t have any mongooses”. Despite being a relatively frequent topic, nobody seems to want to standardize on a plural form of “mongoose”, and the regular plural is not winning. Because of this, the joke plural sees just enough use to be not so much of a joke. Of course this needs formal study, and I welcome grant offers for the work.

  46. John Cowan said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

    Garrett Wollman:

    A suffix is just an affix that happens to appear after the root. The reason we don't want to call -phobe in homophobe an affix is that homo- is not a root: it can't stand alone. Most of the Greco-Latin vocabulary of English works like this: we form words like homophobe not by adding affixes to an existing root (as when we add the affix -ness to the root eager to form eagerness), but by joining combining forms that are already used in already existing words like homosexual and agoraphobe.

  47. Will Steed said,

    February 10, 2010 @ 9:18 pm

    My favourite -gasm is my housemate's 'teagasm'. It's entirely appropriate. She really likes tea.

  48. Army1987 said,

    February 11, 2010 @ 7:39 am

    What about "-on", which started out as the Greek neutral ending in "ion", "electron", and "proton", and ended up on roots having nothing to do with Greek as in "neutron", "fermion" (from Fermi), "boson" (from Bose), "gluon" (from glue), "graviton", and so on?

  49. Carrie S. said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 11:58 am

    There's a webcomic called "The Order of the Stick" in which the villain, upon being shown his new army, declares, "I think I just had an evilgasm".

    A friend of mine insists that the plural of "mongoose" ought to be "polygoose". Not that it comes up in conversation much, as we don't live anywhere the species is endemic.

  50. Alen Mathewson said,

    February 18, 2010 @ 7:50 am

    A propos the comment above re Xgate, you might be interested in this article from Le Monde on Dubaigate.

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