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Emily Popek

November 23, 2013

When is a suffix not a suffix?

“I know a little man both ept and ert. And intro? extra? No, he’s just a vert. Sheveled and couth and kempt, pecunious, ane; His image trudes upon the ceptive brain ...”

So begins a delightful verse by Richard McCord, published by Time Magazine in 1953. McCord, Time reported, was a collector of “lost positives,” those imaginary words that can be created by removing what would normally be a prefix. 

I became aware of the mythical “lost positive” by way of my mother, who occasionally would accuse me of being “gruntled” (among other things). And in high school, I had a wonderful English teacher (Hi, Mr. Hermens!) who drilled us each week on prefixes, suffixes and roots, empowering us to discern meaning from nearly any Latinate word we encountered. 

So I have Mr. McCord, my mother and Mr. Hermens to thank for the fact that my skin crawls every time I hear the word “chocoholic,” or one of its derivatives. 

According to Merriam-Webster, the hideous word was coined in 1968. I’m not going to argue that this event was equally as tragic as the My Lai massacre, or the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Let’s just say that ‘68 was a lousy year, and leave it at that. 

It irks me to no end that some brave soul decided to throw logic to the winds and create this nonsensical word, ignoring the fact that the root of “alcoholic” is ... ALCOHOL, and the suffix is just “ic.” Are chocoholics addicted to chocohol? (If so, who could blame them? It sounds delicious.) No, they are addicted to chocolate. But thanks to some idiot who decided “chocoholic” sounded better than “chocolatic,” we are now blessed with a whole host of words like “shopaholic,” “workaholic,” etc.


These portmanteaus — for that is the lovely word Lewis Carroll gave us for words that are made up of bits of other words, smushed together — seem unavoidable once you start noticing them. For example, this week I participated in a “webinar,” meaning, a seminar conducted via the Web. 

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Emily Popek
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