ENGLISCH/903: Questions to Mrs Gobbledygook (187) "youngish" (SB)


How to expand your vocabulary

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

... and so I would like to know, what the suffix "-ish" means, that one finds in expressions like girl"ish", child"ish" and so on. In modern colloquial English people seem to use it a lot. Why do they prefer this instead of using "like" or the proper adjective?


Thomas K (Vienna, Austria)


Dear Mr K

There is nothing wrong in creating new English words from existing words by the addition of an affix (which is either a suffix or a prefix). Add the suffix -y to the noun "hair", and you have the adjective "hairy" to characterise a person having lots of hair.

English is a living language, it is by no means logically structured, but if you dig your heels into it, you will find the most fascinating aspects, specially in creating new words.

Just look at the following three words

youngish - spicy - believable

and see what links them:

All these three words are created by a base word, a root form, (removing the ending brings you back to the root form), adding something at the end. The new creation is a new word. We got the adjective young and the suffix "-ish" - youngish. We got the noun spice and the "-y" - spicy. Than we got the verb believe and "-able" - believable. And that's all.

Now, what I want to explain to you is, how these suffixes can help to expand your vocabulary and also help you to understand what you read and hear.

There is just one problem: There are no rules. You always find an example that doesn't fit the rules, but there are definitely patterns. And it's a good idea to look for those patterns.

So if we take the first word in the list I gave you, "youngish", the "-ish" here means "sort of" or "approximately". For example you can add "-ish" to words which we use to describe age like oldish, thirtyish, or shape like "squarish" or size like "smallish", "biggish" ... and so on.

You can also add "-ish" to some nouns to say that someone or something has certain qualities. So for example if someone is acting like a child we say he is acting childish. But does anyone act "maturish"? The two words you mentioned in your letter "childish", "girlish" belong into this category. An interesting fact is that you nearly always address oldish people with "childish" but not children. And if someone behaves girlish, he or she must not even be a female. He must just be giggling and chatting a lot, like little girls do.

Another important thing is: You could say that politics had a biggish influence on rap music. But one would never write that in an essay about pop music. Words like "biggish", "squarish", "oldish" are commonly used in informal speaking but not in writing.

Apart from the suffix "-ish" are there any other endings to help you immediately to expand your vocabulary?

Well yes, there are. But this is enough for today, so I will continue this letter another time to concentrate on the suffix "- y" as in spic(e)y and "-able" as in believable.

Hoping this has sort of sufficient"-ish"ly answered your questions.


Miranda Gobbledygook

24 November 2011