Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Suffix that Got Away-- ish at Slate

Slate magazine seems to have a lot of interesting language pieces lately, and this recent piece on the neologism 'ish' is no exception. We've talked here in the past (and that's not the royal we, by the way, it's me and whoever happens to comment) on the way nouns tend to 'verb' in English, and I think there's been passing reference to a few other types of words that have morphed into other kinds of words over time. But according to Gretchen McCulloch, the instance of a suffix becoming a stand alone word is rather rare. For a long time, of course, -ish has been around to attach itself to just about anything. But now it seems to be able to stand up on its own two legs. Well, sort of. Because it's actually still a suffix. It's like the kid who's moved away from home but still has his rent paid by his parents. The lack of attachment is only on the surface.

Reworking the example McCulloch uses a little, here's an example:

Are you hungry?


Are you hungry?

It's a little close to "ick!" for my comfort, but you get the idea.

Apparently, 'ish' is a Britishism, which is why it maybe isn't so familiar out here in the wilds of California, but it has made its way Stateside. It's been in print this side of the pond since at least 2002. Of course it took a British quote to infect our otherwise pure vernacular--in this case from the editor of a London magazine.

Now I will get to the real reason I decided to write up a word that has already been written up quite well by McCulloch and other people. (Just learned of a very interesting blog through the article called Mr. Verb, for instance.) So here's my ulterior motive. It turns out that the second early example cited is found in Colin Bateman's Cycle of Violence. Here's the quote that McCulloch uses.

'Davie Morrow. Trust Davie Morrow.'
'You know him?'
'Ish. He's a regular across the road. Thick as shite, like, but as liable to give you a hidin' as look at you.'

Who's Colin Bateman? Why, one of those wonderful Irish, and in this case, Northern Irish crime fiction writers that I'm always trying to press on others.  If you haven't read any Northern Irish crime fiction, Divorcing Jack would be a very good place to start. In fact, I almost positive that Divorcing Jack was the very first piece of Irish crime fiction I ever read. I haven't read Cycle of Violence yet, but this is a good reminder to me too.

I'm not sure that anyone I know has ever used the word 'ish' in my presence. On the other hand, I'm not sure they haven't. It does sound familiar.

Well, ish.


  1. I will wish for your N. Irish crime fiction when I wave swish-swish on my ish wish dish.

  2. Blogger just ate my comment whole, but in any case, I hope you get your wish.

  3. I had not heard this before but I regard your examples ;ess as evidence that -ish leads an independent existence than of one speaker completing another's word, a kind of verbal crowd sourcing.

  4. It's not an independent existence--it's a detached existence.

  5. My kids say "ish." And now so do I.

  6. A friend emailed me to tell me that in Minnesota, where she currently resides, people commonly say "Ish!" where we would say "Ick!". I'm not sure if the two meanings of ish get confusing for Minnesotans or not.