This quotation from The Grammar Devotional explains our topic today: “From the e-mail I receive, I’d say a-whole-nother bothers a ‘whole lotta’ people. Maybe if they knew how it compares to other words and phrases that are similar, they wouldn’t hate it so much.”
Some linguists consider a-whole-nother to be an instance of tmesis: using a word or phrase to separate another word or phrase into two parts. Other linguists call it infixation: inserting an affix into the middle of a word. So what’s the story?
Morphemes Help Us Change Words
To understand affixes we have to understand morphemes. Fortunately, they’re interesting. A morpheme is the smallest possible unit of meaningful sound or sounds. For example, the sound you hear when you make an f sound is just a sound, with no meaning. And, if I ask you whether the single sound s has any meaning, or if the three consecutive sounds in ist have any meaning, you might say “no.” But, when you add -s to the end of most nouns in English, it carries the function “I am plural” or “I am more than one.” If you add -ist to a certain limited list of word stems, like flor-, pian-, and lingu-, -ist takes on the meaning “someone who does,” or “someone who has this profession.”
These little morphemes, or affixes, that change words are called bound morphemes, because they have to be attached, or bound, to something else to make sense.
Other Languages Regularly Use Infixes
Prefixes are bound morphemes that attach to the beginning of a word (like—incidentally—pre- in prefix), and suffixes are bound morphemes that attach to the end, like the -s example. But, other languages have infixes, just as plain, regular, and unobtrusive as our plural -s suffix in English.
For example, in Tagalog, there is an infix, actually pronounced -in- (no pun intended!), which is inserted into verbs to make them past tense. So, the word bili means “to buy,” and the word b-in-ili means “bought.” To wrap up our definition of affix, you can think of it as an umbrella category that includes prefixes, suffixes, infixes, and other things we won’t talk about.
English Uses Infixes for Emphasis in an Informal Way
How does this fit into our a-whole-nother puzzle? The next step is to think about the most common way people use infixes in English: to insert (oh my!) curse words, especially the f-word and its euphemisms. Luckily, there are lots of euphemisms we can use, so our examples shouldn’t make you blush.
By now, you are probably already beginning to think of how to stick swear words inside other words, and you may even have thought of times you heard or uttered expressions like Ala-freakin’-bama or abso-effing-lutely. People in Britain do the same thing with words such as bloody and bloomin’. For example, in the British musical My Fair Lady, from 1964, the lead character Eliza Doolittle sings the word abso-bloomin’-lutely in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly.”
Linguist Anne Curzan makes a crucial point about this nearly isolated case of English infixing: Adding a full word like bleeping to a host word provides emotional intensification, or emphasis, but does not have a true grammatical purpose, the way adding -in- to a verb does, in Tagalog, or adding -s to a noun does, in English. Rather, speakers who say “abso-effing-lutely!” are intensifying the meaning of the word absolutely.
Another fascinating point about—let’s just call it “inserting swear words” for now—is that people follow subconscious rules when they do it. For example, many linguists have observed that the swear word is almost always inserted before the stressed syllable of the word—never after it, never at the end, never before the secondarily stressed syllable, etc. That’s why, in the four-syllable word Alabama, we would all agree that Ala-flippin’-bama would be the way to go, since the third syllable, ba, is the stressed one. That’s also why even people who mostly care about formal English would immediately agree that Al-bloomin’-abama sounds very silly, and is “not right” to any native English-speaker’s ear, regardless of the fact that it is an informal expression.
Believe it or not, although it’s limited to certain social dialects, there is also a non-expletive (though also informal) example of this infixing-like thing in English: inserting -iz-, as in hizzouse for house. According to linguist Mark Lindsay, hip hop artists and fans have been doing it for at least three decades. And, like inserting swear words, the -iz- is not required for grammar (remember how our plural -s is required for grammar) or for meaning (remember how our -ist suffix encodes the information that someone has the profession in the first part of the word); it is instead used for emphasis.