Mind your language

Why –y? The evolution of a suffix

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

Hitler was ‘dark, shouty, moustachioed’ in Churchill’s eyes, or rather, that was Jonathan Rose’s view of how Churchill saw Hitler, according to Sam Leith, writing in the books pages on 19 April. Shouty is not a word Churchill would have used in exactly this sense, for which no example is recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary before 2001. It falls in the category of –y suffixes that connote condemnation, ridicule, or contempt, like catty, churchy or beery.

There are plenty of entries for a rather different sense, ‘like a shout’, as Henry Coward noted in his Choral Technique and Interpretation (1914) of untrained voices that may be ‘shouty, throaty, cavernous, hooty, scoopy, and nondescript’. Hitler, however, was given to shouting, and indeed invading, making him Blitzy and stampy too.


The –y suffix has been productive in English for more than 1,000 years. From before the Conquest comes icy, which can either mean ‘like ice’ or ‘full of ice’. Chaucer has sleepy, as does the film of Snow White, with another four dwarfs in ending in –y. Fatty (‘like fat’) is used by that dear old enyclopaedist John Trevisa in 1398, while noisy is not found before the time of John Dryden: ‘A noisy Crowd, Like Women’s Anger, impotent and loud.’ Well, I don’t know about that.

The clever men at Oxford say that ‘later new derivatives tend in a large measure to be colloquial, undignified, or trivial’, as with oniony, treey, dangly and lumpy. I can see that treey belongs to a trivial register of speech, but lumpy is more neutral — lumpy seas can figure in a serious narrative. A new connotation for adjectives ending in –y emerged in the mid 19th century, with the meaning ‘addicted to’, as in horsy (R.S. Surtees) and doggy (James Payn, a very popular but now generally unknown novelist).

In cases such as needy and clingy, psychological connotations have joined existing senses. The poor have been needy for hundreds of year, but lovers only in the past 20 years. We’ve had clingy clay for 300 years, but clingy people only within living memory. Adjectives ending in –y can be silly, but they often come in handy.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
Close