The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XV. Changes in the Language since Shakespeare’s Time

§ 6. Methods of word-making

The two chief methods of word-making—composition and derivation—are extensively employed in modern English. Composition is very prominent in Old English, especially in poetry. Later English gave up certain of the old methods of compounding. This surrender has frequently been exaggerated, and the assertion has more than once been made that English is, in consequence, weakened as a language. But, since English achieves by other means the primary end and aim of language—communication between man and man—why should it be termed enfeebled? Instead of compounding, English often prefers to make a noun do the work of an adjective or a verb, or it borrows from other tongues. And who shall say that English has done wrong in choosing loans like disciple and impenetrable rather than coinages like learning-knight and undrivethroughsome? English seems to feel that a word need not always consciously define or describe what it stands for. It is sufficient if the word designates. But modern English has kept a rich store of compounds and possesses the power to coin more. True, our poetry no longer teems with the formations found in Beowulf. But the practice of compounding is proved from such examples as Milton’s vermeil-tinctured, many-twinkling; Gray’s feather-cinctured, incense-breathing; Keats’s subtle-cadenced; Shelley’s passion-winged; Tennyson’s gloomygladed; Swinburne’s sun-forgotten; Arnold’s ray-crowned; Browning’s dew-pearled. Nor is it only the poets that employ this device. All strata of the language—from slang to poetic prose—possess compounds. They crowd our larger dictionaries in battalions, many of quite recent origin, while they swarm in newspapers and magazines, clamouring for recognition as valuable additions to the vocabulary. And, besides using native material, English appropriates foreign words and stems, which it links together, sometimes in arbitrary fashion, to produce shapes, often hybirds, “that would have made Quintilian stare and gasp.” A few instances of these are aerodrome, autocar, bibliomania, barometer, cyclostyle, hydroplane, jocoserious, kaleidoscope, megalomania, neo-catholic, neolithic, ornithorhyncus, pandemonium, panorama, phantasmagoria, photograph, pictograph, pseudo-Gothic, quasi-war, somnambulist, stereoscope, telephone, zincograph, zoology. Many words of this type have been coined to supply the needs of inventors and men of science. English, as a rule, chooses this method of making a scientific terminology in preference to employing native terms with their intimate associations. Greek and, in a less degree, Latin are the chief sources.

The following compounds, all modern, exemplify various modes of coining from native materials: king-emperor, hero-worship, mad-doctor, teacup, bushranger, catspaw, clothes-brush, ballot-box, backwoodsman, sponge-cake, jackass, tomcat, tomfoolery, spokeswoman, sportsman, easy-chair, yellowback, dreadnought, holdall, knownothing, makeweight, skinflint, spoilsport, outvoter, overmantel, to outclass, to overdevelop, to caseharden, to copperbottom, to roughgrind, duty-free, colour-blind, absent-minded, one-ideaed, one-legged, one-roomed, round-faced, great-coated, bounty-fed, jerry-built, sea-borne, sea-washed, self-governing, self-centred, highflown, cold-drawn, fresh-run, calf-bound, chance-sown.

In forming derivatives, many of the Old English prefixes and suffixes are no longer employed. To compensate for this, unlimited use is made of foreign prefixes and suffixes.

The native prefixes most frequent in modern formations are be-, mis-, un- (reversal of action), un- (negative), as in bespangle, bedevil; misapprehend, misconduct, misspell; unlimber, unpatriotic. The number of un- words, in both senses, is enormous. The Old English suffixes -ster, -dom, -en, -ling, -some, are still employed, though not extensively, to make new words; as tipster, boredom, freshen, tighten, princeling, adventuresome. On the other hand, -ed, -er, -ful (for nouns and adjectives), -ing, -ish, -less, -ly (for adjectives and adverbs), -ness, -ship, -y, are freely and widely suffixed, as talented, self-coloured, skater, tobogganer, boxful, artful, cycling, homing, baddish, mulish, fingerless, tideless, yearly, suavely, aloofness, nothingness, championship, slangy, fidgety. The foreign prefixes and suffixes come from Latin, Greek and French. They are not added merely to stems from their own language, but, without restriction, they combine with stems from anywhere to make new English words. The following exemplify (1) the commonest foreign prefixes; (2) the commonest foreign suffixes—(1) ante-chapel, ante-diluvian, anti-macassar, anti-Darwinian, bi-weekly, bi-millionaire, circumambient, cis-Elizabethan, co-education, counter-attraction, counter-clockwise, decentralise, disarrange, disbelief, enslave, ex-Prime-Minister, ex-official, extramural, international, intertwine, non-intervention, pre-arrange, post-glacial, postgraduate, pro-tariff-reform, recount, re-afforest, semi-detached, submarine, sub-kingdom, super-heat, ultra-radical; (2) clubbable, traceable, blockade, orangeade, breakage, approval, prudential, Johnsoniana, nitrate, vaccinate, addressee, auctioneer, Carlylese, leatherette, Frenchification, beautification, speechify, Addisonian, Byronic, butterine, jingoism, toadyism, positivist, Jacobite, pre-Raphaelite, hypnotise, oxidise, streamlet, booklet, bereavement, oddments.

Of minor modes of word-production active during the last three centuries, the first to be noticed consists in change of accent. One word thus becomes two, differing in sound and sense, and, at times, in spelling; as conjure’, con’jure; hu’man, humane’; ur’ban, urbane’. A second mode is shortening—part of the habit common in English and frequently assailed by purists. Swift struggled for years against mob, an abbreviation of mobile vulgus; but in vain. Mob has proved a valuable addition to the vocabulary. Abbreviations are not additions unless the shortened form differs, more or less, in meaning from the original, or, while retaining the meaning, is applicable under different circumstances. Sometimes it is the last part of the word that remains, as bus from omnibus, wig from periwig, cute from acute, van from caravan. More frequently it is the first part that remains, as cab from cabriolet, cad from cadet, Miss from Mistress, navvy from navigator, rake from rake-hell, tar (a sailor), from tarpaulin, tick (credit), from ticket. Port (the wine), from Oporto, has lost both head and tail. Another mode has been termed “back-formation.” The word burglar, for example, was regarded as containing the suffix seen in liar; and, by a piece of false logic, it was assumed that, as liar presupposes to lie, so burglar presupposes to burgle. Similarly to sidle was made from sideling, taken for a participle. Other modern back-formations are to char (burn), from charcoal; to frivol from frivolous; to process from procession; to roughride from roughrider; to spring clean from spring cleaning; to stoke from stoker; to subedit from subeditor; to sulk from sulky; to swindle from swindler; to tightlace from tightlacing or tightlaced.

Finally, we may note words which seem to have “sprung up”—instances, in fact, of “root-creation.” For the most part, they are words originating in onomatopoeia, the principle underlying the poet’s music, in Tennyson:

  • The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
  • And murmuring of innumerable bees,
  • as well as more obtrusively in Browning:
  • Bang-whang-whang goes the drum, tootle-te-tootle the fife.
  • The term onomatopoeia has been widened to include words which, while not precisely imitating the sound, yet commend themselves to the ear as symbolic suggestions to the mind of the sound’s effect. Such words continually arise. To ridicule “swell” modes of utterance, la-di-da originated about 1883; pom-pom was a soldier’s invention in 1899, during the South African war; ping-pong appeared with the game in 1900, ping itself (for the ring of rifle bullets) being then some fifty years old. A few similar modern creations are boo, fizz, flurry, fribble, fuss, hubble-bubble, hurdy-gurdy, kittiwake, miaow, miminy-piminy, puff-puff, ratatat, snigger, sniffling, splutter, splodge.