Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The -wise and Wherefores

My friend Casey loves to ask questions so difficult that they make my hair eyes hurt. He responded to a recent post with an observation about the -wise construction -- apparently he's heard it mostly from ~18 year olds -- and dropped off the question "Where does this come from?" I think I can address this without flinching too badly.

His example:
Person A: "So, Joe, do you need a new bed when you move into your apartment?"
Person B (a.k.a, Joe): "Well, bed-wise I'm in pretty good shape."

Let's submit a few more to consider:

    How's the weather there?
    It's miserable temperature-wise

    Should we measure each side?
    No we'll just measure it lengthwise

    Does he speak Ojibwa very well?
    He's pretty good accent-wise

    Which way are you spinning?
    I think this is clockwise.

    Are you good with money?
    Well penny-wise I'm pound foolish.

The first categorisation - we will say it's a surface characteristic - splits the usages into hyphen/non-hyphen forms (ironic hyphenation?). Do these words count as examples of the -wise suffixation? They're certainly not part of the currently productive rash. I doubt Casey (for instance) would object to the use of otherwise. But there is a grammatical form here that has been generalised to generate those other constructions.

The OED tells us that this suffix comes from the archaic noun wise meaning "a manner, way, mode, fashion, or degree." So to act kindly is to behave "in benevolent wise." Not too common anymore. The OED's account of the etymology takes us to the Old English wise and connects the word to several other similar words, in various languages, that arose from the Germanic base of WIT and WISE (adj). (The OED is great for the history of a word in English but it always presents such a circuitous etymology. Damn the OED for forcing me to learn more than a simple answer.) The suffix works quite closely to the -ways suffix: anyways noways (cf. nowise.)

Webster's New World gives us a more simple (though more weakly attested) path to the German weise which "probably" originally meant "appearance." And the Indo-European root is identified as *weid- from *w(e)di-, to see, know. In etymology those asterisks mean "we don't swear to this."

This suffix has gained a very flexible utilization -- it can follow almost any word -- likely because of its very nebulous meaning:

"In a specific manner" lengthwise (cf. sideways)
"In a manner similar to" clockwise
"In reference to" temperature-wise, accent-wise

It's this last use that is especially productive. Almost any noun can take the suffix. I can't think of any noun that would not allow it. Even gerunds will take it. "I had a very slow summer fishing-wise." We can use it to cap a constituent phrase: "I'm pretty lazy; but watching-TV-all-day-wise I'm an ironman." And we can stack several nouns under one suffix: "I'm pretty skilled, cooking ironing and even sewing-wise."

Perhaps this old formula works too easily. Boredom can quickly become irritation when we feel it's imposed. And of course - when any easy construction encourages a slew of nonce terms we start to wonder if every one is really necessary.


  1. They may be tedious but they are economic-al. I remember Tell at DAA often adding -age. We were driving out to the river fire pit and there was some serious "pipeage" next to the road.

  2. The -age suffix always reminds me of Pauly Shore - especially fundage grindage and doobage.

    It comes from the French. It's especially marked from that source in words with the "-ahzh" pronunciation. E.g. mirage collage entourage.

    But we find in less obvious places: marriage passage village

    We will not give Pauly Shore any credit for popularising and increasing the productivity of this suffix.

    We will blame him.

  3. This is all amazing. Good job. I think my objection with the -wise suffix reflects a more primary objection that has something to do with a general love of words. This seems to be almost a genetic personality trait. Apparently you and Buffy are blessed (afflicted?).

    In other words, vocabulary-wise, I prefer seeing interesting words instead of fairly lame standby grammatical suffixes.

    Also--isn't it intriguing how people can use these language tricks without knowing the (sometimes outdated) OED definitions and usages? I have little doubt that most people who would say "accent-wise" don't consciously understand the "-wise" add-on as a stand-in for "appearance."

    Hey--maybe language IS interesting after all!


Thanks for reaching out.

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