Saturday, 12 March 2011

On -ish

A correspondent writes to ask if there are any rules governing the use of -ish in English. He says ‘we tend to add it to short adjectives, particularly colours and physical attributes: shortish, tallish, greenish... but googling reveals that we add -ish to just about every adjective under the sun, such as beautifulish, Europeanish, freezingish, exhaustedish...

He’s right to draw attention to the monosyllabic character of the adjectives. This is an important factor when it comes to inflections in English. We see it in the comparative and superlative forms too, where the distribution of -er and -est vs more and most correlates strongly with length. We prefer bigger to more big. Adjectives with three syllables or more use the other construction (more interesting, not interestinger). There are just a few exceptions, such as unhappier. Adjectives with two syllables are more difficult to describe: some take the inflection (eg those ending in -y and w, such as happier, narrower), some don’t (eg those ending in -ed, such as more worried), and some take both (eg commonest and most common).

A similar situation applies in the case of -ish. In the sense of ‘somewhat’, we find it added to monosyllabic adjectives from Middle English times - colour words such as bluish (1398) and blackish (1486) are among the earliest. Adjectives ending in y and w attract it too: sillyish (1766), narrowish (1823). The usage then extended to other monosyllabic adjectives, such as brightish (1584), coldish (1589), and goodish (1756), and the usage has continued to extend over the centuries. In the early 20th century we find it used for hours of the day or number of years, probably motivated by earlyish and latish - ‘See you at about eightish’, ‘She’s thirty-ish’. Note elevenish, forty-five-ish, 1932-ish, and so on, where the root has three or more syllables.

This ties in with a second use of -ish, where it’s added to nouns in the sense of ‘having the character of'. Some, such as childish and churlish, and the nationhood names such as English and Scottish, go back to Old English. Among later arrivals are boyish (1542) and waggish (1600) - the latter a first recorded use in Shakespeare, as is foppish and unbookish. (Shakespeare quite liked the suffix - knavish, dwarfish, thievish, hellish, etc.) Note that most have a derogatory sense. Again, most are monosyllabic, but we do find the occasional longer form, such as babyish, womanish, and outlandish. This trend really took off in the 19th century, when novelists and journalists extended it to proper names. We find Micawberish, Queen Annish, Mark Twainish, and suchlike, as well as some colloquial phrases - ‘You look very out-of-townish’, ‘He has a how-do-you-do-ish manner’.

What we’re seeing today - and what my correspondent has noted - is the further extension of these patterns in informal contexts to longer adjectives. I can’t see any restriction here, other than the stylistic one - they are informal, colloquial, jocular, daring. There’s a youtube site called extraordinaryish. But one senses the novelty - as does Google. When I typed it in, to see if it was used (I got 193 hits), it was worried. ‘Did you mean extraordinary fish’, it asked.

29 comments:

Annie said...

All these weirdish words (threehundredfortish, silly-little-me-late-again-ish etc.) show the admirable flexibility of English and the way people love playing with language. And an incentive for this ludicity is the variety of connotations that can be expressed by -ish words, isn't it.

Talking of Shakespeare's love for -ish adjectives, King Lear stands out. A play full of mutual offence and angry expletives, Lear's wolvish, Gloucester's boarish, Goneril's cowish, Edmund's goatish and Fool's foppish and apish talk about the antagonism among all the characters, lack of affection and animal-like, unnatural behaviour recurrent throughout the play.

But I like Iago's bookish and unbookish most. Double-faced himself, he uses the complementary antonyms both with the derogatory connotation much to his own content - dismissing Cassio as a 'bookish theoric' and mocking Othello's 'unbookish jealousy'. I think this usage is a major indicator of Iago's chameleon nature.

Amy Stoller said...

Have you found anything regarding the use of "Ish" on its own meaning "sort of," "not very," "kinda," and so forth?

Fan: "Didn't she look terrific on the red carpet?"

Critical Friend: "Ish."

I don't know this usage is common in the UK, but it's had some currency here in the US.

Barrie England said...

‘In fact, I'm not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish. Not the whole hog, you know.’

Jonathan Miller in ‘Beyond the Fringe’

Expat mum said...

I like "ish" as a stand alone sentence, to be used to dilute the meaning of the previous sentence, (tongue in cheek, naturally). EG. "I am the best mother in the world. Ish."

DC said...

Yes, ish as a separate item is common in British English too - and ishy.

Richard Sabey said...

Even "unhappier" is not an exception if it's reckoned that "unhappy"'s ability to take -er and -est derives from that of "happy".

DC said...

Of course. Virtually anything ceases to be an exception once one starts to think derivationally.

Susan M. Ebbers said...

Love the picture book ish by Peter Reynolds, where a frustrated artist is encouraged by his baby sister:

"It doesn't look like a vase!"

"But it's vase-ish."

The Ridger, FCD said...

I was taught (not as a "rule" but as an explanation-cum-prediction)that two-syllable adjectives that end in a vowel (sound) take the suffix, and those that don't take "more/most". Those that end in N are for some speakers more vowel-sounding than for others, I suppose.

DC said...

It's a bit more complex than that... In addition to the -n ones we find instances like stupid, polite, and pleasant which often take the inflected form (as well as the other), especially in the superlative.

Susan M. Ebbers said...

What about verbs that end in ish: varnish, tarnish, polish, etc. Is that another sense of the suffix, or just a spelling pattern?

Mike Church said...

An excellentish overview. Thank you very much. Many doubts resolved in one fell swoop :)

Mike Church said...

Annie's comments are also extremely interesting. (Thank you, Annie). For years, I've argued with my students that English speakers are the most playful language users in the world. It's impossible to hear a longish conversation in English without hearing a pun of some kind, I tell them. But I can't prove this, of course. Plus, it's a dangerously smug view, so I have to be careful!

Anyway, I really must shakespeareanise myself. David and Ben have both written wonderful introductions, I understand, so there's really no excuse :)

The Ridger, FCD said...

Very true - "most stupid" is certainly less common than "stupidest"...

DC said...

Susan: verbs like tarnish? This ish has a completely different etymology. It's from a French (and ultimately Latin) suffix expressing the beginning of an action.

Susan M. Ebbers said...

Interesting! Perhaps like abolish, astonish, admonish. In grade school, it helps to show examples where 'somewhat, like' does not apply, despite the spelling.

Thanks. This question has perplexed me.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

@Barrie England

In the same vein, a line from The Bee Movie:

Mother bee to father bee discussing their son’s girlfriend: “I do hope she’s beeish”

Graeme said...

@Barrie England

I didn't know the Jonathan Miller joke but I did pick up a Scottish Council of Jewish Communities leaflet from my local library entitled 'Jew? or Jew-ish?'

I suppose that goes to show that there's nothing new-ish under the sun

Jonathan said...

Mr. Crystal,

Your website appears to be down and I was basing an entire research paper on Shakespeare's Language and your work in "Around the Globe" is my primary source material. I was wondering if your website will be back up shortly or if those articles are located elsewhere. I am not sure how else to contact you.

Thank you.

Jonathan

DC said...

Website is now up and running. There must have been some maintenance going on last night.

Chris said...

As a non-native speaker of English I admire the flexibility English has to "play" with suffixes to create non-existing words to suit your needs whether syntactical or semantical -you wanting to convey a certain meaning, words that will be understood. Another suffix I find particulary flexible is the adjective-forming -y, if only students were able to play with roots and prefixes and suffixes instead of storing full words in their brains, they'd be surprised at the amount of vocabulary they have the potential and skill to create and understand.
http://howadultslearn.wikispaces.com/
Very kind regards to DC. I saw you at a talk at the Edinburgh Book Festival a while ago.

Graeme said...

On Saturday night I had the pleasure of eating in The Waiting Room in Eaglescliffe. It's a vegetarian restaurant and having DC's post in mind I couldn't resist the Ir-ish stew.

Klaus Berger said...

Oh yes, as another non-native speaker of English I do as well admire the flexibility of the English language (and of languages in general) but what “bothers” me about those new developments is that it can be hell-ish to find an accurate German translation for new and very creative words!

Michael Carino said...

+1 "Mike Church said...

An excellentish overview. Thank you very much. Many doubts resolved in one fell swoop :)

15 March 2011 05:28"
It's great to have any doubts about using -ish quashed, because I rather like using it, and having had it validated like this is great.
However, i only really use -ish in the sense of ‘somewhat’. Otherwise, I like using -esque, rather use than -ish, when referring to an object as having the characteristics of another. This is particularly in reference to people or concepts, e.g. "Jane Austin-esque " or "Twitter-esque".
Which is more widespread?

DC said...

-ish is far more common, being so much older and much more established in the language. Both suffixes have the same etymological origin, incidentally.

claudio said...

I'm a spanish student, so forget my english.
In the last episode of Midsommer Murders, one character establishes the time of an appointment by saying: 'about sevenish'. But, is it not the function of the 'ish' to mean about? Why use both?

DC said...

Reinforcement - emphasizing the approximation, in this case. The speaker might have gone further 'I'll be with you about sevenish more or less', or suchlike. This kind of tautology is only likely in very informal English.

claudio said...

Thank you for your answer!
It seems to me a very spanish way of making an appointment!

Professional translator said...

Claudio, I didn't understand, what do you mean with a very Spanish way of making an appointment?