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.