Tuesday, April 23, 2013

GrammatiCats: Tmesis

I know, right: you had to click over here just to figure out whether I really did misspell "thesis" that egregiously.

But no!  Check it out, you guys: tmesis is totally a real thing.  Here's one right here:

Did you see it? 
There it is: abso-frigging-lutely.  Tmesis is the insertion of a word or phrase within another word or phrase.  In this case, we took the word "absolutely", sliced it open like a tender chicken breast, and then stuffed in the delectable ham and cheese that is "frigging."  Now we have a succulent chicken cordon bleu of emphasis and swearing.

But it's not just for swearing!  What would our cultural lexicon be without:

Hi-diddly-ho, neighborino!
Legen - wait for it - dary
That's a-whole-nother ball game
Well, la-dee-freakin'-da!

But even if you're not in the deliberate word-stuffing habit, we use tmesis all the time in standard English.  For example, think about the verb to tell apart.  Despite having multiple words, it's one single idea, and yet you almost have to stuff another word between them: I couldn't tell them apart.

Other examples of regular everyday tmesis with phrasal verbs include:

to throw away --> throw that away
to turn on --> turn it on
to chalk up to --> chalk it up to experience
to blow away --> the wind blew them away

But wait, there's more:  we use it with possession too! 

In this sentence, "best friend" belongs to the Man, not the Hat.  Essentially, what we've done is to take "the Man's best friend," and then use tmesis to cram "in the Yellow Hat" between "Man" and the apostrophe-S.  (This example is a little dodgy, since the Man in the Yellow Hat is being treated as a proper name, but you see what I mean: we do just the same when we talk about "the guy on TV's hair" or "the woman in black's profile," and scarcely bat an eye.)

Anyway, no lecture on any of this stuff - no "do it like this, not like this" - so no pinkie rating today.  Mostly I just wanted you to know that when John Wayne was drunkenly ranting at ROTC students about the "ri-goddamn-diculous" state of the country, he was using a legitimate linguistic device.  (That link will play an audio clip, by the way, which is fantastic, profane, and about two minutes long.)

Further Reading:

This is only tangentially related, but apparently someone woke up one day and said, "do you know what the Internet needs?  A massive, sprawling, searchable index of phrasal verbs."  This thing must have saved thousands of English learners from confusing "to blow away" with "to blow," and I am honored to add to its renown.

Many thanks to today's GrammatiCats!

All of these cats are courtesy of the great Dr. C and her selfless volunteering at the Irving Animal Care Campus  Thank you, thank you, three bags full!

(Does your kitty want to be a GrammatiCat?  Sign up here!)


  1. But mostly, I mean really at the core of it all, I just want to know how to pronounce "tmesis".

    1. Y'know Al, I can't claim to be an authority on that (strangely, it's not a word that comes up much in conversation!)

      I'll tell you one thing, though: if we can't get a grip on "tmesis," we don't have a chance in hell at Tmesipteris.

  2. Replies
    1. Tmesis for tendentious - it was a great trade!

  3. I use these... these... Tmesis all the goddamned time! Mine are almost always swearing injections lol and my awesome (awesome being subjective) made up phrases. I will spare your audience, however... for now.

    I never knew it was a "thing", though. (Huh, does that comma belong in the quotation makes?)

    1. I know, right! That's why I had to do tmesis: because so often it sounds like we're just bastardizing sentences, when it is actually a totally legit literary device! Hold your head high, and cuss intra-wordedly without shame!

      (And yeah, in American writing, commas and periods go inside the quotation marks, come hell or high water. I've been brazenly ignoring that rule for awhile now.)