tmesis

My word tasting class were having the discussion that all linguistics students have sooner or later, usually when covering morphology.

“So if I say absofreakinglutely, what is that?” Kayley asked.

“Rather tame!” Anna said. “I’d say –”

Kayley cut her off. “I know what you’d say. But what do we call it? It’s like we’re splitting absolutely into a prefix and a suffix and sticking them onto freaking.”

“Only,” said Brian, “it’s really absolutely that’s being modified and freaking that’s doing the modifying. So it’s an infix. And for any word you can predict where it will be infixed.”

“Only it’s not, really,” I said. “What’s a key feature of an affix? What kind of a morpheme is an affix? A prefix, a suffix: pre, un, ness, ing… Can I use them as independent words?”

“Nope,” said Anna. “They’re stuck freaking tight. Hangers-freaking-on.”

Brian nodded. “They’re bound morphemes.”

“Bound and freaking gagged,” Anna added.

“That would be nice,” Kayley said purposefully at Anna.

“An an infix is also an affix,” I said, “just one that’s wedged in the middle.” I tried to ignore Anna adjusting her shorts in response. “We don’t have them in English. So the best word for this phenomenon, I would say, is tmesis.” I wrote it on the board.

Jenna put up her hand. “I can’t read your handwriting. It looks like you have a TM at the start of the word.”

“That’s what it is,” I said. “From Greek for ‘a cutting’.” I said it again: “T’mee-zis.”

Rupert raised his hand. “That sounds like the capital of Georgia.”

Jenna looked incredulously at him. “It sounds like Atlanta?”

“The country of Georgia, in the caucasus,” I said. “The capital of which is Tbilisi.”

Brian was sitting back with his arm on the back of his chair, half-smiling. “It looks like a trademark infection.”

“Abso-Fuddrucker’s-lutely!” Anna giggled. “In-Viagra-fected!”

“Well, we might as well say ‘trademarkesis’,” Jenna declared. “We don’t start a syllable with ‘tm’ in English.”

“Except in this word,” I said. “But I know what you mean. It trips and stumbles when you say it, more like something was taken out than put in. To look at it, it looks like the m was just wedged in there, doesn’t it? Like the word is somehow misset, mixed up.”

“So tmesis means putting a word inside another word,” Brian said.

“Well, and there’s the rub,” I said. “Originally, classically, it meant inserting a word into a compound or set phrase. Like what Anna did with those phrases: Hangers-freaking-on. Or like saying Superduperman instead of Superman. Or even whatsoever instead of whatever, or chit and chat instead of chit-chat. Always fitting between the parts of a compound.”

“So not absofreakinglutely?” Kayley asked.

“It breaks it right in the middle of a morpheme,” I said. “Just like we would say heli-freaking-copter even though classically the split point would make it helicofreakingpter. So actually the word stuffed in is a rude interruption.”

Rupert raised his hand.

“Yes?” I said.

“Which seems to be the point,” he observed. “These words are rude, and they interrupt the main word. Rudely.”

“But rhythmically,” Anna said. I was so used to her making off-colour tangents that it took me a moment to realize this wasn’t one. Or at least wasn’t just one.

“Indeed,” I said. “They stuff in right before a stressed syllable – primary or secondary stress. Now, that’s not what most references will tell you tmesis involves. So… tmesis or not tmesis? That is the question.”

“Absoscrewingbluingtattooinglutely,” Anna declared.

Brian had a clever-looking smile. “We can even use it to prove that tmesis doesn’t break English phonotactics. By proving that it has three syllables.”

I paused for just a moment. “You’re right, in fact.” I turned to the class. “Where would you put the tmesis in tmesis?”

“That sounds like autocopulation,” Anna said. “Tumescence!”

Kayley determined to oblige with a response to my question. “T’-freaking-alright-OK-shut-up-already-Anna-mesis!”

Thanks to Jens Wiechers for prompting me to do tmesis.

8 responses to “tmesis

  1. Jens Wiechers has sent me a link to a page in a linguistics textbook that asserts that this is infixation: http://books.google.com/books?id=DObARq3r9MoC&pg=PA58&lpg=PA58&dq=morphof-104inglogical&source=web&ots=MQ9cyQtUMi&sig=Tdi7DhdRy_I3hrRIKueV58oVTcI&hl=en#v=onepage&q=morphof-104inglogical&f=false

    Intro linguistics textbooks are not invariably right about everything, however (and they often take firm positions on things that are actually subjects of ongoing dispute), and in this case I think they are mistaken. Their way about it has been to classify one particular word as also an infix. But as has been demonstrated, any expletive will do in that position (I remember reading an article about Southerners learning northern accents, and one who didn’t want to declaring “I don’t want to sound like Indi-goddam-ana”) – in fact, even a long string of expletives will work. So I do think (and I’m not the only one who thinks this!) that this is better viewed as tmesis that clips pseudomorphologically (just as we split words like helicopter and alcoholic pseudomorphologically). For more on pseudomorphemes, see https://sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2009/10/11/inkling/ .

  2. I have nothing to say about this…it was grfuckingeat. (Hmm, where do you break one syllable words?)

    Seriously, nice examples with an amusing setting, thanks.

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  6. I’ve revisited the topic for The Week and have had second thoughts about calling it tmesis – but I still say it’s not infixation http://theweek.com/article/index/273209/why-linguists-freak-out-about-absofreakinglutely

  7. I really enjoyed that.

    And I loved the question about Frank Sinatra. I tried it both ways: “Frank Freaking Sinatra” (does the kicked-in word require the same capitalization as the phrase/word it’s interrupting?) and Frank Si-freaking-natra”. I think they both work, but to different effect. The second one seems more emphatic, possibly because it’s more interrupt-y.

    (Actually, I could see both of them working in a piece of dialog [in a period piece, natch]:

    “Hey, you know who I saw at the hot dog cart? Frank Bloody Sinatra! No freakin’ kiddin’, man! Frank Si-freaking-natra!” )

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