Morphogasmic affixation

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.

Quasihemidemisemiquavers used in Beethoven's Piano Sonata no.8

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.

* * *

* 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.

22 Responses to Morphogasmic affixation

  1. Sean Jeating says:

    Mr. Carey, Sir; this is just to prewarn you that, within the next week a certain visitor will now and then return to this very post, as he can’t resist the temptation to live the (almost) undescribable pleasures of a most magic and mighty multilinkgasm.

    Hope you will enjoy one of those ever-refreshing weekends with those you love, Stan.

  2. Excellent stuff and I see a bit of tmesis too!

  3. Stan says:

    Sean: Thanks very much, and enjoy the multilinkgasm! I had a lovely weekend in the country, where the frogspawn that featured here before have either matured into tadpoles or been gobbled up.

    Jams: Yes in-double-deed. There’s a close correspondence between tmesis and infixation, though it seems some commentators reserve the former term for more literary usage.

  4. Claudia says:

    Moi, j’comprends pas les gens qui parlent comme ça!!!
    C’est le fun de lire Beethoven’s quasi………quaver, mais pas de le dire…

  5. Stan says:

    Claudia: Bien sûr, c’est difficile de comprendre l’argot, surtout quand c’est parlé et pas écrit. Quant aux quasihemidemisemiquavers, c’est le plus amusant d’y jouer!

  6. […] a dog warden In my last blog post I used hemicorporectomy (amputation of half the body) as an example of how affixes’ consistent […]

  7. Claudia says:

    C’est plus amusant de les jouer. Mais cela prend de la pratique! Mes pauvres doigts ont autant de difficulté avec les notes que mes pauvres oreilles avec l’argot anglais. Quel dilemme!

  8. ThomasK says:

    I have been exploring affixation and all kinds of derivations based on Dutch words (from houden to behouden, verhouden, onthouden, etc., and from houd to inhoud, houding), some basic compounds (houvast, a hold), etc. But has that proved useful in English? What for ?

    My aim was offering mnemotechnical information to students of Dutch, or even native speakers. Most are simply amazed at the number of words created based on a single ‘base’. But is that useful?

  9. Stan says:

    Thomas: It’s invaluable. Affixation is a very efficient way to form words, commonly adding grammatical or lexical information to a base. It allows changes to be made very economically to a word’s class, tense, meaning, polarity, etc., without the need for more elaborate formulations.

  10. Claudia says:

    I totally misunderguesstimated the fun it is to form new words with affixations. Now I’m going to see what I can do in French.

  11. Stan says:

    Bienvenutations au superclub de joyeuffixation, mon amie!

  12. ThomasK says:

    Just one more/last question, Mr Stan ;-): does the analysis (explanation) of affixation (I wish to include phrasal verbs, because they are the English variant of affixation,I think) have a useful impact on language learners’ progress, do you think? Have you written anything on that issue (phrasal verbs for example)?

  13. Stan says:

    Thomas: I imagine that it would help. Not only does it contribute to a deeper understanding of the structure of the language, but it also can be fun, as Claudia has verified. But phrasal verbs per se have nothing to do with affixation; moreover, phrasal verbs is a rather misleading term for verbal idioms and verbs with prepositions or particles.

  14. Tim says:

    You forgot “alcomahol”. Hehe. I say that one all the time.

    I tell people that if you understand enough affixes — although, that’s the first time I’ve heard that actual term; I just say word prefixes and suffixes, and never really thought about infixed before now –, then you can more than likely decipher the meanings of a lot of English words. Then it becomes a question of etymology: Latin? Greek? Old French?

    Take, for example, the word “octopus”. It’s of Greek origin: Octo- meaing eight, and the -pus part being from the Greek “pod”, meaning leg or foot. In Greek, words are pluralised by adding an “s”. And so the plural of “octopus” becomes “octopuses”; no question. Perhaps at one point we even called them octopods? Sounds science-fiction-y. “The octopods are coming! The octopods are coming!” “Too late, son, the octopods already took over my body; and now I am going to convert you too…” “Nooooo!”

    A little drama for you there. ;) Hopefully not too morphogasmic. :o

  15. Stan says:

    Thanks for the sci-fi melodrama, Tim! I’m very pleased to see morphogasmic already in active use. Is alcomahol from The Simpsons? It sounds like something Homer S. would say, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard it; I neither watch much telemavision nor drink much alcomahol these days…

    Regarding octopus: there’s also octopodes, the pedantic Greek plural. It appears only rarely, usually in dictionaries, style guides, and blog posts about how it’s an obscure plural of octopus.

  16. […] Whimsical affixation comes naturally to us, and the effects can be morphogasmic. […]

  17. The Ridger says:

    I know this is a late response, but learning prefixes and suffixes can provide a nearly unquantifiable boost for learners of Slavic languages.

  18. Stan says:

    Thank you for the tip, Ridger. I don’t mind late responses; very few posts on this blog are particularly topical.

  19. […] however, say derivation and back-formation require, respectively, the addition and removal of an affix; the -e in soothe does not seem to be an affix (see […]

  20. […] more on the use and variety of affixes, see my post “Morphogasmic affixation” and the links therein. You might also enjoy John J. McCarthy’s “Prosodic structure and […]

  21. Bhuvaneswar says:

    Could you please tell me how affixation in English originated?

    I am looking for historical details of its evolution with some examples.

    For example, I am sure infixation is a very recent phenomenon and so there should be some record of its first use and how it came into English.

    Another example is about duplifixes ; cancershmancer.

    Thank you very much.


    • Stan says:

      I don’t know how affixation in English originated, but I do know it was very much a part of Old English morphology and word-building. As for cancershmancer, I would have thought this was two words, cancer s(c)hmancer, and therefore a matter of reduplication, not infixation.

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