Elision or tmesis?

By Maeve Maddox

Reader Lydia was left with a question after the post about the expression a whole nuther:

So, this isn’t the case of eliding words because it is easier to pronounce? Can you clarify a bit more?

Two other readers, PF and Jon, put a Greek name on what is going on with a whole nuther:

PF: I believe that the phrase “a whole ‘nother” is in fact an excellent example of a tmesis, the figure of speech in which a word or phrase is split (the word comes from the Greek for cutting) by another word that serves to make the original more emphatic. The most common examples generally involve profanity or almost-profanity: abso-freakin’-lutely, for instance.

Jon: “A whole ‘nother” is abso-freakin’-lutely my favorite example of tmesis.

Elision is leaving things out. Tmesis [tmē’sĭs] is putting things in.

Here are some definitions from the OED:

elision: The action of dropping out or suppressing: [ex., a letter or syllable in pronunciation]

tmesis: The separation of the elements of a compound word by the interposition of another word or words.

We elide letters all the time in conversation. It makes words easier to say.

Consider this sentence: Last Tuesday or Wednesday he bought a new camera for his family.

A native English speaker might pronounce it like this: Las Tuesday or Wensday he bought a new camra for his famly.

In his discussion of tmesis, Bill Long reaches this intriguing conclusion about its resurgence in English:

. . . tmesis is a valuable means for arresting the attention of the reader or hearer. Most scholars thought that tmesis was fading out in English, since the major terms which were split were those of a deep poetic past (e.g., “whensoever” or “whithersoever”). But I think that we are just learning to explore the contours of tmesis in our language today. Words are easily separable, with prefixes and roots able to be lopped off and tons of items, ranging from “freaking” to “fucking,” inserted. As a matter of fact, I think that there will be a nationally-recognized comedian who will arise in the 2010s precisely because he has deeply mastered the art of tmesis.

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1 Response to “Elision or tmesis?”

  • Tony Hearn

    I once knew a very Anglophile Dutchman. He reckoned that tmesis in English could not be matched in any other language. His favourite was an old soldier’s talking about the campaign in ‘Meso-bloody-potamia’!

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