Infixes? Absofreakinglutely… not.

The tools of linguistics are like a fancy set of lock-picking tools, different ones suited to different locks. Some locks are hard to pick and linguists try a few different tools, proclaiming varying amounts of success in the effort. Sometimes you may want to conclude that a new tool is needed. One case that’s given a lot of fun in the attempt is the case of words such as abso-freaking-lutely. What, exactly, is taking place, morphosyntactically? Or is morphosyntax even the right way to look at it?

Well, here’s what I think, in my latest article for The Week:

Why linguists freak out about ‘absofreakinglutely’

They don’t even really know what to call it

8 responses to “Infixes? Absofreakinglutely… not.

  1. This word modification process that James Harbeck calls “inkicking” also occurs in the Yiddish idiom “Hak mir nit keyn tshaynik” which means “Don’t annoy me.” Removing the inserted element “mir” (me) produces “haknit,” a Hebrew word meaning “tease, provoke, annoy, irritate, vex.”
    Moving the “nit” to the end of the word “keyn” also produces the KNT sound of “haknit”.
    Moving the “tsh” of tshaynik (teakettle) to the end of that word produces the Polish word nękać (nekatsh) which means “plague, annoy, worry, harass, torment.”
    For a more complete explanation, see:
    https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/2033458/Hebrew/Teakettle.doc

  2. In my newsroom we like to refer to the New York By God Times.

  3. I think Allan Jay Lerner anticipated this in 1956:

    “Aow, so loverly sittin’ abso-bloomin’-lutely still.”

    http://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/myfairlady/wouldntitbeloverly.htm

  4. Sorry, I didn’t spot that this post had a link to another article, and was only commenting on your post. The word tmesis is clearly defined in Chambers as meaning this exact thing, and its pronunciation is perfectly straightforward. The e rhmes with the ee in feet and the sis is pronounced like the sis in sister. A little practice will enable you to say tm.

    • My post was a link to the article; that’s its entire reason for being – it doesn’t stand on its own.

      You seem to be implying that linguists would not disagree on it if they had the sense to just look it up in Chambers. You ought rather to conclude that if there is debate among linguists, there is more to it than what you read in Chambers. If you would like an idea of the debate about whether this is tmesis or not, have a look at the comment thread at http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=8463 . A basic issue is that tmesis is thought of as insertion between the parts of a compound, as in “be thou ware”; in the case of many of these insertions, they break into the middle of morphemes. So does this count as tmesis or not? The issue has not been concluded.

      I have no difficulty saying tmesis or, for that matter, any other word in the language. But if you were actually to show the word to several real-life people, they would not all get it at first go, and some would be highly resistant to it, as /tm/ is not an allowable onset in English phonotactics. If you have to go around to everyone you want to use a word lecturing them on how it’s perfectly straightforward, you are proving in action that it is not perfectly straightforward. Words that people are uncertain of how to say tend to be avoided, regardless of whether you think they should find it easy. That presents a barrier to general adoption of a term. In effective writing and editing, it is necessary to anticipate the reality of the readers’ responses; what people “should” do does not matter if they do not in fact do it. If your expectations are not in keeping with the actual results you will get, you must adjust your expectations or you will not produce optimal results.

  5. My all time favourite “infix” or whatever linguists may finally call them is (secondhand so as related to me):
    “What do you think I am? Sofuckingphistifuckingcated?” Said by a petrol station attendant in rural Queensland, 1960s.
    A very sophisticated version of the word!

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