Your libfix and blend report for May 2016

Two bits of creative morphology I’ve been seeing around the city:

  • Lime-a-rita: This trademark (of Anheuser-Busch InBev) isn’t just a redundant way to refer to a margarita (which has a lime base—a non-lime “margarita” is a barbarism), but rather a “light American lager” blended with additional lime-y-ness. I have to imagine this coinage, albeit rather corporate, was helped along by the existence of the truncation ‘rita, occasionally used in casual conversation by their most comitted devotees.
  • -otto: I first came aware of this through pastotto, the suggested name for a dish of pasta (perhaps penne), fried in olive oil and butter and then cooked in stock, like risotto; according to popularizer Mark Bittman, this is an old trick. Now, that one looks a bit blend-y, given that the ris- part of risotto is really a reference to arborio rice, and that the final -a in the base pasta appears to be lost in the combination. But not so much for barleyotto, which satisfies even the most stringent criteria for libfix-hood.

(ing): now with 100% more enregisterment!

In his new novel Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon employs a curious bit of eye dialect for Vyrna McElmo, one of the denizen of his bizarro pre-9/11 NYC:

All day down there. I’m still, like, vibrateen? He’s a bundle of energy, that guy.

Oh? Torn? You’ll think it’s just hippyeen around, but I’m not that cool with a whole shitload of money crashing into our life right now?

What’s going on with vibrateen and hippyeen? I can’t be sure what Pynchon has in mind here—who can? But I speculate the ever-observant author is transcribing a very subtle bit of dialectical variation which has managed to escape the notice of most linguists. But first, a bit of background.

In English, words ending in <ng>, like sing or bang, are not usually pronounced with final [g] as the orthography might lead you to believe. Rather, they end with a single nasal consonant, either dorsal [ŋ] or coronal [n]. This subtle point of English pronunciation is not something most speakers are consciously aware of. But [n ~ ŋ] variation is sometimes commented on in popular discourse, albeit in a phonetically imprecise fashion: the coronal [n] variant is stigmatized as “g-dropping” (once again, despite the fact that neither variant actually contains a [g]). Everyone uses both variants to some degree. But the “dropped” [n] variant can be fraught: Peggy Noonan says it’s inauthentic, Samuel L. Jackson says it’s a sign of mediocrity, and merely transcribing it (as in “good mornin’“) might even get you accused of racism.

Pynchon presumably intends his -eens to be pronounced [in] on analogy with keen and seen. As it happens, [in] is a rarely-discussed variant of <ing> found in the speech of many younger Midwesterners and West Coast types, including yours truly. [1] Vyrna, of course, is a recent transplant from Silicon Valley and her dialogue contains other California features, including intensifiers awesome and totally and discourse particle like. And, I presume that Pynchon is attempting to transcribe high rising terminals, AKA uptalk—another feature associated with the West Coast—when he puts question marks on her declarative sentences (as in the passages above).

Only a tiny fraction of everyday linguistic variation is ever subject to social evaluation, and even less comes to be associated with groups of speakers, attitudes, or regions. As far as I know, this is the first time this variant has received any sort of popular discussion. -een may be on its way to becoming a California dialect marker (to use William Labov’s term [2]), though in reality it has a much wider geographic range.


[1] This does not exhaust the space of (ing) variant, of course. One of the two ancestors of modern (ing) is the Old English deverbal nominalization suffix -ing [iŋg]. In Principles of the English Language (1756), James Elphinston writes that [ŋg] had not fully coalesced, and that the [iŋg] variant was found in careful speech or “upon solemn occasions”. Today this variant is a stereotype of Scouse, and with [ɪŋk], occurs in some contact-induced lects.
[2] It is customary to also refer to Michael Silverstein for his notion of indexical order. Unfortunately, I still do not understand what Silverstein’s impenetrable prose adds to the discussion, but feel free to comment if you think you can explain it to me.

Defining libfixes

A recent late-night discussion with two fellow philologists revealed some interesting problems in defining libfixes. Arnold Zwicky coined this term to describe affix-like formatives such as -(a)thon (from marathon; e.g., saleathon) or -(o)holic (from alcoholic, e.g., chocoholic) that appear to have been extracted (“liberated”) from another word. These are then affixed to free stems, and the resulting form often conveys a sense of either jocularity or pejoration. The extraction of libfixes is a special case of what historical linguists call “recutting”, and like recutting in general, the ontogenesis of libfixation is largely mysterious.

As the evening’s discussion showed, it is not trivial to distinguish libfixation from similar derivational processes. What follows are a few examples of interesting derivational processes which in my opinion should not be identified with libfixation.

Blending is not libfixation

One superficially similar process is “blending”, in which new forms are derived by combining identifiable subparts of two simplex words. The resulting forms are sometimes called “portmanteaux” (sg. “portmanteau”), a term of art with its own interesting history. Two canonical blends are br-unch and sm-og, derived from the unholy union of breakfast and lunch, and smoke and fog, respectively. These two are particularly memorable—yet unobstrustive—thanks to a clever indexical trick: both word and referent are mongrel-like in their own ways. What exactly distinguishes blending from libfixation? I see two features which distinguish the two word-formation processes.

The first is productivity: libfixation has some degree of productivity whereas blending does not. In no other derivative can one find the “pieces” (I am using the term pretheoretically) of smog, namely sm- and -og. In contrast, there are over a dozen novel -omicses and dozens of -gates. There is therefore no reason to posit that either sm- or -og has been reconceptualized as an affix.

The second feature which distinguishes blending and libfixation deals with the way the pieces are spelled out. Libfixes are affixes and do not normally modify the freestanding base they attach to. In blends, one form overwrites the other (and vis versa). Were -og a newly liberated suffix, we would expect *smoke-og. This criterion also suggests that mansplain, poptimism, and snowquester are not in fact instances of libfixation; in each case, material from the “base” (I also use this term pretheoretically) is deleted.

Zwicky himself has noted the existence of a blend-libfix cline, and the tendency of blends to become libfixes. He suggests the following natural history:

A portmanteau word (useful or playful or both) invites other portmanteaus sharing an element (usually the second), and then these drift from the phonology and semantics of the original to such an extent that the shared element takes on a life of its own — is “liberated” as an affix.


Clipping is not libfixation

“Clipping” (or “truncation”) is a process which reduces a word to one of its parts. Sometimes truncated forms are themselves used for compound formation. For instance, burger is derived from Hamburger ‘resident of Hamburg’ (the semantic connection is a mystery). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, forms like cheese-burger appear in the historical record at about the same time as burger itself. There is one way that clipping is distinct from libfixation, however. Clippings are free forms (i.e., prosodic words), whereas libfixes need not be. In particular, whereas some libfixes have homophonous free forms (e.g., -gate, -core), these are semantically distinct: whereas one can claim to love burgers, one cannot reasonably claim that the current administration has fallen prey to many gates.

The curious case of -giving

To conclude, consider a new set of words in -giving, including Friendsgiving, Fauxgiving, and Spanksgiving. These are not blends according to the criteria above, and while giving is a free form, the bound form has different semantics (something like ‘holiday gathering’). But is -giving a libfix? I’d say that it depends on whether Thanksgiving, etymologically an noun-gerund compound, is synchronically analyzed as such. If so, -giving has not so much been extracted as reanalyzed as a noun-forming suffix, a curious development but not an event of affix liberation.

h/t: Stacy Dickerman, John Kelly