July 29, 2011

Word of the Month - Tmesis

Tmesis comes from the Greek for "cutting."
        As far as I'm aware there is only one word in the English language that begins with tm-, making tmesis a nifty word to know about regardless of its meaning.  But imagine my delight when I discovered that tmesis has an interesting definition too!  It isn't mere spelling trivia -- it's the word for one of my favorite linguistic phenomena!

tmesis - the interpolation of one or more words between the parts of a compound word or between syllables

        My favorite example is a phrase that's been part of my vocabulary my whole life:
a whole nother.  This phrase sounds so right that I had no idea there was anything non-standard about it until the first time I tried to write it and discovered just how weird it looks.  (I knew nother wasn't a word.  But that's tmesis for ya; it does indeed set you up with bits and pieces of word.  That's why these phrases usually get spelled as one big compound.)
        The other common usage of tmesis is to provide additional opportunity for exclamations (especially swear words, of course.)  A classic example comes from the lyrics of "My Fair Lady:"
"Oh, so loverly sittin' abso-bloomin'-lutely still…"
Or, of course, such expressions as un-freaking-believable or guaran-damn-tee.
        One of the interesting things about the phenomenon is that although no one gets taught the "correct" way to infix expletives, native speakers of English show remarkable consistency in their choice of where to put the cuss for the best effect.  No one would say "guar-damn-antee" or "ab-bloomin'-solutely."  That would clearly be wrong.
        Tmesis is just one more of those wonderful ways in which language is alive and kicking, and so much more than a bunch of dry rules in a grammar book.  So keep your ears open and enjoy the tmesis.

[Picture: Tiny Scissors, linoleum block print by Sonia Romero, on her Etsy shop She Rides the Lion.]

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