April 28, 2015

Words of the Month - The Suffixinator

        A productive suffix is one that can be actively used to form new words in a language.  An example is 
-ability.  As new verbs enter the language, -ability can be added to them, with a meaning that is readily apparent to and accepted by speakers (despite a certain curmudgeonliness about jargony coinings.)  The hackability of computers is evidence of this.  (An unproductive suffix, naturally, is one that was once used to form words in the language, but which can no longer be added to bases to form acceptable new words.  Think of the -head in godhead and maidenhead, or the -lock in wedlock.)
        English has recently gained a number of newly productive suffixes which are particularly interesting because they’ve been adapted from words in which they were not originally suffixes or separable parts at all.  In other words, English (perhaps primarily American English) seems to have a recent predilection for randomly chopping the ends off words and investing these word fragments with new meanings as suffixes.

-burger - Anything to which this suffix is added becomes a patty of ground food, as in cheeseburger, turkey-burger, and veggie-burger.  But burger doesn’t mean “minced meat” in the original hamburger from which the “suffix” was chopped, which is why, of course, hamburgers aren’t made of ham.  Burger really means “a person or thing from a fortified settlement” in German, in this case specifically something from Hamburg.  There are varying accounts of the invention of the hamburger and its name, but burger as a freestanding word seems to date from the late 1930s, at the same time that -burger became productive as a suffix.  Now one can request an ostrich-burger, scoff at a gristle-burger, or threaten to pound Ernie’s face into an Ernie-burger, and the meaning will be perfectly clear.

-kini - The bikini was named for an atoll in the Marshall Islands (as explained previously), which comes from Marshallese Pikinni meaning “surface of coconuts.”  It’s broken smack through the middle of one Marshallese element, so it isn’t really any word any more… except that in English it’s become productive as a suffix meaning a bathing suit that isn’t a normal one-piece tank suit.  This gives us tankini, in which the top half of the bikini is lengthened into a tank top, and skirtini in which the bottom has a mini skirt.  But an even more charming reinterpretation of the original bikini takes the bi- which used to be half of Marshallese “surface” instead to be Latinate “two.”  You can then replace it with other numbers, producing the monokini (the one-piece bikini bottom worn alone) and the trikini (a three-piece suit with separate cups on top.)  Presumably that makes nude beaches the place to look for the nullkini.

-oholic - One of our most popular new suffixes, this denotes addiction despite there being no etymological sense of addiction in the history of that combination of letters.  It’s simply half the alcohol of alcoholic, and in fact it’s often spelled -aholic, coming even farther from its etymological origins (as explained previously).   Apparently it was first used as a combining form for sugarholic in 1965, and within the next twenty years we coined workaholic, chocoholic, and shopoholic.  If I described myself as a bookoholic, a printoholic, a soupoholic, or a daffodilaholic, everyone would recognize my words at once (and perhaps even join me in confessing their shared passions for these things).

-athon - The marathon running event, named in 1894 after the Greek place name of legend (which means “fennel”), soon came to mean by extension any long, grueling event or activity.  It was first chopped apart and its second half used as a suffix in walkathon around 1931.  There followed talkathon, telethon, dance-a-thon (also spelled danceathon and dance-athon) and readathon.  And the suffix is still freely available for me to indulge in a cleanathon (ugh), a bakeathon (yum), or a printathon (oh joy!)

-gate - There’s no joy in the unfortunately ever-productive suffix denoting scandal.  It derives from chopping the end off the place name “Watergate,” the site of what obviously wasn’t the first political scandal but was in 1972 perhaps the first big one to keep the national media frenzied in the era of extensive television coverage.  Although a gate is, of course, just an innocent door in a wall or fence, we now hear about everything from Weinergate and Gamergate to utter trivialities in sports and entertainment.  I think it’s a scandal how overused this suffix is, and if I thought it was a conspiracy, too, I’d allege a Gategate.

Finally, a suffix to keep an eye on, as it’s become productive in comic slang (and among cheesy corporations):
-inator - It’s unclear exactly when this began.  Perhaps it comes from the Terminator movie in 1984, with the morphemes split after term instead of after terminate.  Perhaps its first true use was Trogdor the Burninator in 2003.  The feel of redundancy or overkill is deliberate, and it implies destruction to comic effect with overtones of mad science.  It’s used as the go-to suffix by the mad scientist Dr Doofenshmirz on Disney’s animated show “Phineas and Ferb.”  He has invented devices from the obvious Shrinkinator to the less obvious Giant Dog Biscuit-inator.  Cheesy actual corporations using the suffix seem to be mostly in the pest control business and include Moleinator and Pestinator.  But this is a suffix that isn’t as clearly defined as today’s other examples.  A Destructinator seems pretty straightforward, but if I were to invent the Printinator, would it destroy prints, like the Pestinator (heaven forfend!)?  Would it transform everything into a block print?  Would it stamp relief prints onto everything?  Perhaps that’s why this one really ought to remain in the world of comedy and fiction.  When -inator is involved, you know you’re unleashing something of ridiculously awesome destructive power (or perhaps awesomely ridiculous destructive power), but the details may be dangerously vague.

[Pictures: Hamburg, woodcut from Cosmographia by Sebastian Munster, c. 1570 (Image from Albion Prints);
Crossing the Haha, Holkham, wood engraving by Cordelia Jones (Image from the Norwich Print Fair).]

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