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November 23, 2013

When is a suffix not a suffix?

The Daily Star

---- — “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. 

Never mind that the word “seminar” is derived from the Latin “seminarium,” meaning “seed plot.” That would make a “webinar” a “web plot,” which sounds like something devised by a very evil spider. 

What on earth is wrong with simply calling it an online seminar? Or saying someone is a chocolate addict? 

But, such are the cries of the sort of impotent curmudgeon who lambasts people for saying they feel nauseous (”It’s ‘nauseated!’ ‘Nauseous’ means ‘causing nausea!’”, I cry, echoing my mother) or cringes at redundancies such as “free gift” and “added bonus.” (Again, credit goes to my mom.) 

I can hear you now, telling me to calm down and relax a little bit, that words are just words and their meaning is fluid and who really cares anyway. And for years, I bit my tongue and took it when people told me that, because I had not formulated any real defense to their demands that I chill out about their misplaced modifiers. 

But as fortune would have it, I have found myself in one of the few careers on Earth where these pet peeves are actually an asset and not just an annoying personality quirk. In fact, I’m getting paid to (among other things) root out words like “nauseous” and gleefully replace them with their appropriate substitutes. 

So if I still shudder a bit when confronted with workaholics and webinars, I take comfort in the evil words and phrases that I am allowed to strike down with my mighty red pen. And if that makes me a weirdo, a megalomaniac or just plain not a nice person — well, I suppose I don’t mind too much. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to prune some dangling participles.

EMILY F. POPEK is assitant editor of The Daily Star.