Wordy Wednesday: tmesis
(WARNING: this particular Wordy Wednesday starts off sweetly, but the language it contains goes downhill from here on in…)
If you’re a fan of The Simpsons, you’ll no doubt have heard Ned Flanders, Homer’s much abused, luxuriantly moustached Christian neighbour, saying “Wel-diddly-elcome, Simpsons!”
Ned’s homey catchphrase is an example of tmesis. And if that sounds like Greek to you, it’s because it is: Tmesis comes from the Ancient Greek for ‘a cutting’; ‘I cut’, and it’s the linguistic phenomenon in which a word or phrase is separated into two parts, with other words interjected between them.
Other homey examples of tmesis are “just put it any-old-where,” and ‘it doesn’t matter, do it any-old-how’.
While these coinages are as wholesome as Mom’s apple pie, some of the most effective examples of tmesis are less so, involving as they do the insertion of a swear word into a word or phrase. There’s even a special term for this, ‘expletive infixation’, used for phrases such as:
Ri-goddam-diculous (a coinage by John Wayne)
We English love a swear word, and tmesis gives us lots of opportunities to use one of our favourites, the ‘F’ word, in ways that are strangely satisfying, and hard to take offense at:
I’m a bit discom-fucking-bobulated by that…
Unbe-fucking-lievably (used by Stephen Fry* as an example of tmesis at BorderKitchen in The Hague in 2011, according to Wikipedia).
*If you’re in the UK, don’t miss this week’s serving of Fry’s English Delight on Radio 4, where you’ll hear the ‘F’ word eulogised, euphemised and criticised.