linguistics and lexicography Love English

It’s a libfix-aganza!

© PHOTOALTOIn his report on the new updates to Macmillan Dictionary, Michael Rundell discussed the increasingly popular and productive term -mageddon, as in carmageddon and snowmageddon. Each such coinage invokes, by analogy with the others and with the original word Armageddon, ‘the idea of something bad occurring on a large scale and causing chaos or destruction’. –Mageddon is normally classified as a suffix, but it’s a rather unusual one. It doesn’t exactly fit in with the likes of –ism, –ence, and –acy.

A similarly ostentatious morpheme is –pocalypse (snowpocalypse, heatpocalypse). Both, you’ll notice, are used in various permutations to describe extreme weather. Others aren’t: there’s iversary to mark an anniversary of some kind (blogiversary, hashtagiversary, monthiversary), kini for variations on the bikini (face-kini, mankini, nun-kini), –preneur for different types of enterprising person (foodpreneur, mumpreneur, solopreneur), –tacular to refer to something impressive in a particular way (cat-tacular, craptacular, spooktacular), likewise –tastic (awesometastic, foodtastic, quintastic), and –zilla, ‘connoting size, significance, awesomeness, or fearsomeness’, as linguist Arnold Zwicky puts it (bridezilla, hogzilla, shopzilla).



All of these combining forms are what Zwicky calls libfixes, a term he coined in 2010, because they are liberated parts of words or portmanteaus but ‘are affix-like in that they are typically bound’. I mentioned libfixes in passing here in 2013, in a self-referentially titled post about the ‘new-word-pocalypse’ of trending terms. Libfixes behave essentially like affixes but tend to be more semantically specified than, say, de- or –ation or –ible. The most famous libfix is probably the much-maligned –gate, appended to just about anything scandalous ever since Watergate. And there are many more libfixes – almost enough for an A–Z list.

The splain(ing) in mansplaining is another very productive one, repurposed in a plethora of coinages including whitesplaining, privilegesplaining and langsplaining, where something is explained – often badly – with condescension and presumption. (The danger here is of splaining –splaining.) Splain and splaining, unlike most other libfixes, also seem to have gained independent life, as more general terms to refer to patronising and oversimplified explanation. They also function as straightforward abbreviations of explain, by aphaeresis, much like ’zactly is sometimes used for exactly.

These terms’ popularity testifies to the playfully creative attitude many people have towards language. So often characterised as a formal system needing strict adherence to half-known rules, language can instead be treated – in informal contexts at least – as something to play with, for one’s own amusement or for the fun of doing it socially. Words and their parts become fuel for whimsical and extravagant manipulation. It’s morpholiciously lingtastic.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

4 Comments

  • Dear Stan,
    Excuse the delayed response, but here’s a potential libfix that hasn’t so far found a use I think: ‘Runnergate’ = a sprinting scandal, as in athletic doping or handicap fixing. There’s a nice echo here of ‘runagate’, itself a kind of blenderword or libfix.

  • Thanks for your comment, Pauntley. Delayed responses are just as valid as immediate ones! Runnergate could certainly refer to a sprinting or athletics scandal. A Google search shows that it hasn’t been used much, apart from informally and often jocularly, for example on Twitter. But I did find two news reports using the term, to describe controversies over rule infringements in Irish Gaelic football and Australian football.

  • Hello,
    I know this might be silly, but I couldn’t find any results for “langsplaining” on the web. Can you help me?

  • Hi Mariana. It’s not silly at all – the meaning of ‘langsplaining’ is not immediately obvious. It means to explain something about language in a condescending way. The langsplainer assumes that he (or she, but usually he) is an expert on language and that the person he’s talking to should welcome his unsolicited input. The word was formed by analogy with mansplaining. I hope that helps.

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