UPDATE (11 October): After being Language Logged — wow, thanks! — I realized I had been imprecise in my talk about “British usage.” See my follow-up, which hopefully clarifies things a little. Now, for my original post:
We begin by talking about words, and words about words. From there, we go on to discuss science, words about science, and what happens when the meanings of those words get all tangled up.
Neil Gaiman tells a story about being on BBC Radio 3.
My favourite conversation about language and words was before we went on the air, when Ian told us not to swear (as Radio 3 is only allowed one serious swear word per show) and also not to answer any question with an enthusiastic “ABSOLUTELY!” (which is apparently what writers tend to do). And when I said that I thus presumed that “absofuckinglutely” was right out, Deborah Cameron (Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford) enthusiastically explained to me that swearing is the only example of infixing in the English language and I was happy, for I had learned something.
Let’s pass over the creepiness Rupert Murdoch endowing a chair in any field related to communications. Other weirdness is at work here. Specifically, something strange is afoot in this talk of expletive infixation, which is the practice of inserting an expletive, often in participial form, into the middle of another word. For example, consider Sheridan’s catchphrase in Babylon 5, “abso-fraggin’-lutely,” or Abbie Hoffman’s exclamation to Forrest Gump, “The war in Viet-fucking-nam!” Both these examples illustrate the typical situation, in which the expletive is inserted just before a stressed syllable. John McCarthy has put forward a more general model, in which syllables are organized into binary trees, and infixes can only be inserted in certain locations on the tree; this model appears to describe which constructions the listener hears as “well-formed” and which sound aberrant (fanta-fuckin’-stic just doesn’t sound right).
Infixation is rare in English, but are expletives the only things which we use as infixes? Surely, the Internet can tell us. In fact, let’s just click on the hyperlink which Gaiman provides to define infix. This page, from Answers.com, pulls information from several sources, one of which is a Wikipedia article; we read the following.
English has very few infixes, and those it does have are marginal. A few are heard in colloquial speech, and a couple more are found in technical terminology.
- The infix <iz> or <izn> is characteristic of hip-hop slang, for example hizouse for house and shiznit for shit. Infixes occur in some language games. The <ma> infix, whose distribution was documented by linguist Alan C. L. Yu, gives a word an ironic pseudo-sophistication, as in sophistimacated, saxomaphone, and edumacation.
- Chemical nomenclature includes the infixes <pe>, signifying complete hydrogenation (from piperidine), and <et> (from ethyl), signifying the ethyl radical C2H5. Thus from picoline is derived pipecoline, and from lutidine is derived lupetidine; from phenidine and xanthoxylin are derived phenetidine and xanthoxyletin.
I see little reason to exclude chemist-speak from the “English language,” although I’ll leave it to the professionals to decide how to classify Ned Flanders’ “Wel-diddly-elcome” and “Mur-diddly-urderer” (also an example of reduplication, I think). As for the <iz> infix, I can testify that among folks of my background — middle-class white kids from sub-frickin’-urbia — infixation is sometimes used to palliate the offensiveness of a word. When playing Halo in mixed company, for example, Shiznit! and Biyotch! are more acceptable exclamations than their uninfixated counterparts. This is clearly not the same as expletive infixation: instead of adding an expletive to an innocent word, a curse is diluted, sometimes for humorous effect.
I can also attest to edumacate and sophistimacation, not to mention alcomohol and even the variant boozeomohol.
So, no, I don’t think swearing is “the only example of infixing” which the English language provides. I wouldn’t go on at such length about it unless another linguistic issue, also related to Deborah Cameron, had come to my attention. This conundrum revolves around that old goblin of a word, Darwinism.
Continue reading Darwi-fraggin-ists