I don’t trust the guy. I think he regifted, then he degifted… (Jerry Seinfeld)
Nomomorphemy for me! (James Joyce)
Words are made from two main types of elements (or morphological units): bases and affixes. Every complex word has at least one base, and most bases are free elements: they can function as self-contained words. Affixes, being bound elements, cannot exist independently, though they are sometimes identical to independent words (e.g. extracurricular) and they sometimes stand alone in suspended form (e.g. pre- and post-launch).
Affixes are added to bases to modify them, or to make new words or longer bases (see diagram*). The process contrasts with back-formation and is endlessly productive. Affixes are very useful in technical and academic fields, where many neologisms are needed to keep up with the proliferation of new concepts, and because the terminology is best based on a taxonomic template that is both flexible and predictable. For example, even if you had never encountered the word hemicorporectomy before, you might guess that it means the surgical removal of half the body, and you would be right.
Affixes are categorised according to their position: prefixes precede a base (this kind of affixation is called prefixing or prefixation, e.g. moral → amoral); infixes are added internally (infixing or infixation, e.g. sophisticated → sophistimacated); and suffixes follow a base (suffixing or suffixation, e.g. human → humanoid). Prefixes and suffixes are collectively known as adfixes, but this term is used only rarely. Inflectional suffixes comprise an important subset; they are few in number but frequent in application, being used to convey plurality, tense, and comparative relation (e.g. birds, walked, lightest).
In A Brief History of English, an introductory essay to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (sixth edition), David Crystal writes that “excluding inflectional endings, there are just over 100 prefixes and suffixes available for use in everyday English, and at least one of these will be found in 40–50 per cent of all the words in the language.” Outside of everyday English, there are many more than 100 recognisable affixes. For a closer look at these “building blocks of English”, Michael Quinion’s affixes website is as handy as it is interesting.
Here are some common(-ish) prefixes: a-, agro-, ambi-, anti-, arch-, archaeo-, astro-, audi(o)-, auto-, be-, biblio-, bio-, cardio-, centi-, circum-, co-, crypt(o)-, cyber-, cyto-, de-, demi-, dis-, dys, e-/E-, eco-, electro-, en-, encephal(o)-, epi-, equi-, ethno-, Euro-, ex-, extra-, fore-, geo-, hetero-, homeo-, homo-, hydro-, hyper-, idio-, im-, immuno-, in-, info-, infra-, inter-, ir-, iso-, kilo-, mal-, maxi-, meta-, micro-, mid-, milli-, mini-, mis-, morph(o)-, multi-, mytho-, nano-, necro-, neo-, non-, olig(o)-, omni-, over-, paleo-, pan-, para-, peri-, phon(o)-, photo-, poly-, post-, pre-, pro-, proto-, pseud(o)-, psych(o)-, quasi-, re-, retro-, self-, semi-, sub-, super-, techno-, tele-, theo-, trans-, tri-, uber-, ultra-, un-, under-, uni-, ur-.
And suffixes: –able/-ible, –aceous, –age, –aholic, –al, –ance, –archy, –athon, –ation, –centric, –cide, –dom, –ectomy, –ee, –een, –er, –ery/-ary, –ese, –esque, –ess, –ette, –fest, –ful, –fy, –gate, –gram, –graphy, –hood, –ian, –ic, –ics, –ify, –ing, –ise/-ize, –ish, –ism, –ist, –ista, –itis, –ity, –ive, –less, –ling, –like, –lith, –logy, –ly, –mancy, –mania, –ment, –meister, –morph, –naut, –ness, –nik, –nomy, –oid, –orama, –ous, –pedia, –person, –phobia, –ploitation, –scope, –ship, –smith, –some, –sophy, –tastic, –taxis, –topia, –trix, –ville, –vore, –ward, –ware, –ways, –wide, –work, –worthy, -y.
Affixes can stack up quite impressively. Take for example the musical term quasihemidemisemiquaver, aka semihemidemisemiquaver, which has a precise and purposive meaning. Part of its prefix pile has been proposed (jocularly) as a term for the grandchildren of demigods. Undermisunderoverestimate, on the other hand, is unlikely to catch on, owing to both its unwieldiness and its meaninglessness — unless I’ve misunderguesstimated it. In theory there is no limit to the number of affixes a word can accumulate, but unintelligibility and impracticality deter the more elaborate formations, except in technical niches such as scientific classification.
Infixes range from the barely noticeable to the very obvious. They appear as internal plural markers (spoonsful), as vowel links between bases and adfixes (speedometer), and in chemical nomenclature (picoline → pipecoline). They show up more arrestingly as intensifying expletive infixes (kanga-bloody-roos, absoschmuckinglutely, fan-fucking-tastic);** as intensifying family-friendly infixes (scrumdiddlyumptious); in hip-hop’s –iz– infix [PDF, 340 kB] (shit → shiznit, syrup → sizzurp); and as markers of casual vagueness (whatchamacallit, thingamabob) or “ironic pseudo-sophistication” (edumacation, saxomaphone [PDF, 109 kB]).
These last examples show affixation’s close connection to slang. Slang is sometimes dismissed as a lower form of communication, but only when Standard English is mistakenly perceived to be an inherently superior form of expression. The joy of novelty afforded by slang means that it has always been a fertile source of new lexical forms. So its potential is not only subversive but also fruitful (breedy, if you prefer). Mark Peters’ ever-growing inventorama of humorous nonce words testifies to our love of, and fascination with, morphologically innovative forms — many of which are, like music, playful variations on an old theme.
A textbook case is the -y suffix. It has been around a long time, but it recently got a shot in the arm from its recurrence in the TV show Buffy. Far from petering out, it seems to be used more and more colourfully, not to mention mystery-y-ish-ly. Indulging in playful affixation and compounding is a very communal enterprise — like a poetry slam, or a move in an ongoing game with whoever happens to be reading or listening. As Erin McKean wrote, it gives us “the pleasure of being polysyllabic without the cognitive overhead of a ‘fifty-cent word’”. And even if you don’t find this unorthodox lexifabricology super-win-worthy, you can’t deny the fanciful appeal of a multiple morphogasm.
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* Source: Introduction to English Linguistics (2007), by Ingo Plag, Maria Braun, Sabine Lappe, and Mareile Schramm.
** Arnold Zwicky and Geoffrey Pullum have described expletive infixation as an “extragrammatical phenomenon” [PDF, 148 kB]: an example of expressive morphology as distinct from plain morphology; or, as Wim Zonneveld put it, “a language game rather than a rule of grammar”. This distinction should be kept in mind with regard to some of the terms in this post, including its title and closing line: -gasm is not (yet) a standard prefix.