These Are “-Some” Adjectives

By Mark Nichol

The suffix -some has one of three functions. The most common function, the adjectival one, helps us enrich our vocabulary, and in some cases (especially when -some is attached to a heretofore unacquainted noun to create a nonce word) provides a whimsical or otherwise humorous tone.

The adjectival use of -some (stemming ultimately from the Old English word for some) aids in characterizing something tangible or intangible. Some -some words are ubiquitous; others may be new to you. Here’s a nearly comprehensive list.

1. Awesome: This term, tragically weakened by hyperbolic usage, originally had the potent sense of “something inspiring awe.” (Awe, “a combination of wonder, dread, and profound respect,” came to us from the Old Norse word agi.) As a result, it is best avoided except in the most casual contexts.

2. Adventuresome: In Middle English, aventure meant “chance, risk” (ultimately from Latin adventus, “to arrive”). Adventuresome is a close synonym of adventurous, “inclined to undertake risks.”

3. Blithesome: Blithe, which comes down to us unchanged from Old English, means “happy” or “heedless”; blithesome refers to the former sense.

4. Bothersome: Bother’s etymology is unknown, but its meaning — and that of bothersome — is clear: A bother is a worry or an annoyance, and something bothersome arouses those feelings.

5. Burdensome: Burden (from the Middle English word byrthen, “something born, or carried”) is a load or a responsibility, and the connotation is usually negative, so a burdensome task or duty is an unpleasant one.

6. Chucklesome: This expression, based on the root word chuckle, “laugh” (itself derived from chuck, a variant of cluck, meaning “a click of the tongue”) means “inclined to laugh,” or “humorous.”

7. Cuddlesome: To cuddle (etymology unknown) is to hug, and something cuddlesome is worthy of such attention.

8. Cumbersome: The use of this term’s root word (“hinder, clutter,” from the Middle French word combre, “dam”) is rare, though encumber is more familiar. Cumbersome itself means “unwieldy” or “ponderous.”

9. Dolesome: This synonym for doleful is based on an archaic synonym for grief and means “sorrowful.”

10. Fearsome: Though this word can mean both “causing fear” and “feeling fear” (or, more accurately, “timid”), the former usage prevails. However, a third sense, also more common than the latter, is “extreme,” as in “fearsome ambition.”

11. Flavorsome: This synonym of flavorful is based on the term ultimately derived from the Latin word flatus, “breath” (which — glad you asked — is also the origin of flatulence).

12. Frolicsome: The root word, a borrowing from the Dutch word vroolijk, “happy,” means “playful” in English, so frolicsome refers to someone in such a mood.

13. Fulsome: This term, a combination of full and -some, is one of a class of words that have unfortunately acquired contradictory or confusing senses. Actually, fulsome started out that way, with the senses of “abundant, generous, well developed” competing with “offensive, overdone, effusive.” Although the negative senses long prevailed, they have been overtaken, though not thoroughly, by the positive ones. The result: Unless the context is clear, your readers may not know which sense you intend to convey.

14. Gladsome: This word, whose root is the word that means “expressing happiness or joy,” is a synonym for cheerful.

15. Gruesome: This word for something frightening or repulsive stems from the Middle English word gruen, “to shiver.” The root word is seldom used on its own, usually in horror fiction.

16. Handsome: Of all the some words, this one has perhaps the most interesting etymology. It originated in Middle English when hand, the word for the extension of the arm, was attached to -some to mean “easy to use.” The meaning was extended to “appropriate,” and from there is wasn’t too much of a leap to the sense of “attractive.”

17. Irksome: To irk is to weary or irritate, and something irksome arouses those feelings.

18. Lithesome: Lithesome and its variant, lissome, mean “nimble, flexible,” from an old English word for “slow.”

19. Loathsome: The root word now has a sense of “reluctant, unwilling,” but the Middle English word loth, from which it stems, means “evil,” and the modern definition of loathsome is “disgusting.”

20. Lonesome: This word means “feeling lonely.”

21. Lovesome: This term means “winsome” (see below) or “affectionate.”

22. Meddlesome: Meddle (from the Latin word miscere, “to mix”) means “to interfere,” and a meddlesome person, therefore, is a busybody.

23. Mettlesome: The previous term should not be confused with this word for “spirited,” from mettle, an alteration of metal with the connotation of “strength, stamina.”

24. Nettlesome: This synonym for irritating is based on nettle, the name for any of various plants that sting or have prickly parts.

25. Noisome: The root word for this synonym for harmful or objectionable is not noise but Middle English noy, “annoyance.” However, considering that noise ultimately stems from the Latin word nausea, which English borrowed directly, perhaps they’re related after all.

26. Quarrelsome: Quarrel (from the Latin word querela, “complaint” — which is also the source of querulous but not of query) means “to struggle or dispute,” and a quarrelsome person is one inclined to fight or argue.

27. Tiresome: This word’s meaning stems from the senses of tire meaning “to fatigue or bore.” A tiresome person or situation is one that causes fatigue or boredom.

28. Toilsome: Toil means “strenuous labor,” and a toilsome task is an unusually laborious one.

29. Toothsome: This synonym for attractive or delicious, with a reference to the toothsome person or provender’s impact on the teeth as an extension of the sense of taste, may seem a fairly recent coinage, but it is in fact hundreds of years old.

30. Troublesome: Trouble (ultimately from the Latin word turbulentus, from which turbulent is also derived) is the root of this word meaning “difficult, causing trouble.”

31. Venturesome: The root word of this term is an alteration of adventure, and venturesome is a synonym of adventuresome (see above), but it has an distinct sense of “hazardous” as well.

32. Wearisome: This word’s root is a synonym for tired, and wearisome is, likewise, another word for tiresome (see above).

33. Wholesome: The root word is whole (from the Middle English word hool, “healthy, unhurt, entire,” ultimately from Old English hal, from which we also derive hale), but the word means not only “healthy” but also “proper, prudent, safe.” It is the only word on this list with an antonym formed simply by appending the prefix -un.

34. Winsome: The meanings of winsome are “charming” or “cheerful,” but the root is derived not from the Old English predecessor of win, as in “to achieve victory” (winnan, “struggle”) but from the same language’s term wynn, “joy.” (However, both winnan and wynn probably ultimately stem from the Latin word venus, “desire.”)

35. Worrisome: A worrisome thought or deed is simply one that provokes worry, or concern.

The other, more pedestrian uses of the suffix -some are to attach it to one of several numbers to indicate a group of people, as in twosome, threesome, and foursome (fivesome and sixsome are also listed in at least one unabridged dictionary, but the suffix is not applied to larger numbers) or to convey an approximation, as in “Twenty-some people attended the meeting.”

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6 Responses to “These Are “-Some” Adjectives”

  • Tony Hearn

    One of my favourite of the suffixes and prefixes (along with ‘be-‘ as in a recent posting. Both are handy for apposite and amusing coinages.

    I would suggest (though am open to correction) that the use of -some for approximations (e.g. twenty-some’) is more an American one than British. It has a sort of ‘folksy’ ring in my ears. For ages we might say ‘a twenty-something woman’, though.

    I would also point out that by no means all the words in the list are in current frequent usage. For myself I’d reckon to use about 18 of them, and in several cases you’d be hard pushed to find a contemporary usage example. ‘Chucklesome’ is foreign to me!

  • FrankF

    Mark, I really admire your stamina to compile such lists. Anyway, if you want your list to be even more perfect, under 12 (frolicsome), the current Dutch spelling should be ‘vrolijk’. ‘Vroolijk’ was the correct spelling before the 1930s.

  • Elizabeth

    I knew someone who would say “problemsome.” We always wondered whether he would also say “troublematic.” Are there any other common misuses of -some?

  • Roberta B.

    Intersting list! Maybe next time something on “—ly” (adverbs?), especially when used in sequence as in as the example for “winsome” where it says “probably ultimately.” That use can sound unnatural.

  • AnWulf

    A couple of etym notes here.

    Wynn (also wen/win: joy, rapture, pleasure, delight, gladness) does NOT come from a Latin root. However Venus and wynn share the same PIE base *wen-.

    Gruen meant to be terrified, shudder, tremble (more than only shiver).

    On -some itself. It was -sum in OE. After the Norman-French Takeover, the French orthographic rules didn’t allow an ‘o’ before an ‘n’ or ‘m’. Thus words like sum, cuman, and munk became some, comen, and monk with no change in pronunciation.

  • AnWulf

    Sorry … That should read: the French orthographic rules didn’t allow an ‘u’ before an ‘n’ or ‘m’.

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