You may already know that I am like an Italian cosmetic surgeon for words. When I lived in Italy, I picked up a lot of the language. In fact, I picked it up three times a day for three weeks because it was written on all of the menus. Since I only lived there 21 days, you’d be surprised at how much I learned. Other Italian speakers are.
I don’t want to show off and use any more of it than I already have in the title of this post.
When I’m not being humble, I like to be generous. And although it is extremely difficult to be both on the same day, I’m going to attempt it.
Today, I want to share with you some of the intricacies of word-building, so that you, too, can affix words.
Let’s start with some vocabulary:
Base word: The lowest form of a word.*
Prefix: Pieces broken off of Greek and Latin words that go on the front of a word to help it say something. Think of them as the missing hands from all of those Greek and Roman statues. When a word is in need of a fix, you lend it a hand.
Suffix: More broken word parts, but these are placed on a base word’s backend. (NOTE: This requires the utmost delicacy or the word will say something you weren’t expecting.)
But first, let’s clear up a potential source of controversy: Why do I call the base word the lowest form of a word? One word: Samuel Johnson. In 1755, he published a dictionary, unexpectedly called A Dictionary of the English Language. He took nine years to define, research the origin, and give examples for the 42,773 words in the dictionary. In this scholarly work, he included some clever definitions, such as:
Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.
Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.
To worm: To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.
How can you not love a man who puts things like that in a dictionary? And what’s not to like about someone who calls himself a harmless drudge? Yes, I know that Ambrose Bierce published his witty definitions of words in The Cynic’s Word Book, later retitled The Devil’s Dictionary, but Johnson sprinkled his wit into a dictionary that was the standard for the English language until the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) came along and started showing off. Just as computer geeks plant easter eggs in programs, Johnson planted surprises in the dictionary to delight word lovers.
For reasons not yet revealed to me, I am obsessed with Samuel Johnson, his work, and his remark about puns as the lowest form of humor. With that in mind, consider: Johnson compiled a dictionary full of base words. From these words he created jokes. Ergo, ipso facto, base words themselves are the lowest form of words.
If you are like most people, that will not make perfectly good sense to you, but I’m hoping that you are not like most people. You are, after all, reading this blog.
And now, you must accept my humble apologies. Two hours of humility is my limit; it has exhausted me. I must spend some time thinking about dinner. Tomorrow I will be generous and teach you how to affix words.