A new day, a new thing

My goal to learn something new every day

Day 43: Abso-bloody-lutely


Abso-bloody-lutely is the title I decided on for this post, but it could quite easily have been called fan-fucking-tastic. Both are probably phrases many of us have heard before, and some of us may have even used them from time to time. While usually only found in colloquial speech, they are good examples of a rare linguistic phenomenon (rare at least as far as English is concerned). I had always thought that added words, such as bloody and fucking, in the middle of a word in this way were just known as infixes. An infix is an affix that is added into the middle of a word, as opposed to an adfix. Infixes pretty much don’t exist in English*, whereas adfixes are very common and known more commonly as suffixes and prefixes.


There seems to be competing opinions on whether whole words that are placed inside other words are infixes or not. They aren’t, after all, affixes in the sense that many of our suffixes and prefixes are. However, whether these are infixes or not, there is a term in linguistics that we can use to describe adding a word into the middle of another. It is called tmesis. This itself is such a wonderful word—the only word in English that begins with a ‘tm’ (that I’m aware of at least). Tmesis is a noun and comes from Ancient Greek, meaning the act of cutting. Dictionary.com defines it as “the interpolation of one or more words between the parts of a compound word”.

While the examples of tmesis I’ve mentioned above might not be that common in mainstream English, there are other examples that have cropped up in literature. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, we find the line: “This is not Romeo. He’s some other where.

Phrasal Verbs

But there is another form of tmesis that is much more common and familiar. It is the tmesis we see with our students’ favourites: phrasal verbs. Many phrasal verbs are what we call separable; that is when the direct object of the phrasal verb can come after the the verb + particle or between the verb and the particle. For example, we can say looked up the word in a dictionary or looked the word up in a dictionary.

While some people might try to argue that phrasal verbs are two words, and they certainly look that way when written down, semantically they are a single unit. The particle does not have a separate meaning independent of the verb, but rather combines with the verb, often to create a new idiomatic meaning. Compare this with the verb + preposition combination in the phrase I looked up the stairs, where the preposition ‘up’ does have a distinct, separate meaning from the verb.

Split infinitive (?)

The grammar section on about.com also mentions how the split infinitive can be seen as a type of syntactic tmesis, but that the term split infinitive has become the most popular term today.

And if tmesis wasn’t a beautiful enough word on it’s own, the adjective is tmetic. I think I may have just found my new favourite word. What an in-fucking-credible language we have!


*(BackWhile infixes are rare in much of English, Wikipedia describes how they are found in technical terminology and uses chemistry as an example:

Chemical nomenclature includes the infixes ⟨pe⟩, signifying complete hydrogenation (from piperidine), and ⟨et⟩ (from ethyl), signifying the ethyl radical C2H5. Thus from the existing word picoline is derived pipecoline, and from lutidine is derived lupetidine; from phenidine and xanthoxylin are derived phenetidine and xanthoxyletin.

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This entry was posted on February 12, 2015 by in Language and tagged , , .


February 2015

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