First an Emoji, Now a Suffix

By Maeve Maddox

A writer at Business Insider begins his report on Merriam-Webster’s “word of the year” by saying,

Merriam-Webster’s word of the year is actually a suffix:

Actually, ism has been used as a noun in English since 1680, when a critic referred to Milton as “the great Hieroglyphick of Jesuitism, Puritanism, Quaquerism, and of all Isms from Schism.”

As defined in the OED, an ism is “a form of doctrine, theory, or practice having, or claiming to have, a distinctive character or relation: chiefly used disparagingly, and sometimes with implied reference to schism.”

However, it does seem that whoever chose ism as “word of the year” was thinking of it as a suffix and not as a word. The M-W spokesman explained that the suffix was proclaimed “word of the year” because several nouns ending in it were the object of dictionary searches during 2015: socialism, terrorism, fascism, racism, feminism.

Even if the M-W selection is a suffix and not a word, I find it more acceptable than Oxford’s 2015 choice of an emoji. At least -ism is made up of letters and is pronounceable.

The word ism was used in reference to religious creeds such as Methodism, Catholicism, and Arianism up until the early nineteenth century. Later it was used in reference to political or social thought.

In a citation dated 1820, Thomas Carlyle includes a political creed, Whiggism, as an example of an ism.

In 1864, an ism can be “an untried social theory.” In 1928, Shaw wrote of “proletarian Isms.”

Unlike most other suffixes, -ism is easy to use as a noun because it can be equated with the nouns doctrine and creed.

As a suffix, however, -ism creates nouns with varying meanings. Here are the different uses, based on the entry for -ism in the OED:

1. The suffix -ism is used to form a simple noun of action, usually formed from a verb in -ize. It names the process or the completed action. For example, baptism, criticism, exorcism, mechanism, and plagiarism.

2. The suffix -ism can be used to form nouns that express the action or conduct of a class of persons or the condition of a person or thing. For example, (action/conduct) heroism, patriotism, despotism; (condition) barbarism, orphanism, medievalism.

3. The suffix -ism forms nouns that name a system of theory or practice, religious, philosophical, political, social, etc. For example, Buddhism, Calvinism, Liberalism, and Protestantism.

4. The suffix -ism is used to form class names or descriptive terms for doctrines or principles. For example, altruism, atheism, deism, egotism, and jingoism.

5. The suffix -ism is used to form a term that denotes a peculiarity or characteristic, especially of language. For example, Americanism, Anglicism, Gallicism, Latinism, Scotticism, and Southernism.

In recent years, as society has become deeply concerned with issues of discrimination, still another use has been found for the suffix -ism:

a. forming nouns with the sense “belief in the superiority of one [class or group] over another.” For example, racism, sexism, speciesism, etc.

b. forming nouns with the sense “discrimination or prejudice against on the basis of [some characteristic]. For example, ageism, bodyism, genderism, weightism, etc.

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3 Responses to “First an Emoji, Now a Suffix”

  • Roberta B.

    What about athleticism? I hate that word……..if it even is one.

  • venqax

    This one strikes me as relatively legitimate. Especially as it applies to 3 and 4, an “ism” being a set of beliefs or a doctrine (I can’t say I really see much difference between 3 and 4, however.) I would not accept it in formal writing, but informally it seems passable and convenient.

    Although it does not exactly fit the meaning as discussed, we have seen the “ism” suffix employed recently in “Islamism” (and Islamist) to distinguish Islam, the long-established religion, from what is now also referred to as “jihadism” or “Islamic extremism”. Jihadism is probably a preferable term, however, it could be argued that “Islamism” serves the function of noting the politicization of an originally religious belief system.

  • David Knuttunen

    Thank you for this. I find myself curious about the chronology of the introduction of these forms (which you give only in part). For instance, your forms 2, 3, 5 and a & b all add “-ism” to a word that stands on its own, without and “-ize” or “-ist” ending. For the most part, forms 1 & 4 do not; form 1 changes “-ize” words to “-ism” words, and form 4 works this change with “-ist” words. These latter two seem more organic, in some sense, and I wonder if they came first. Although I note that “altruism” was coined rather late as a conscious opposite to “egoism” (which does fit the other model). So maybe my instinct is wrong.

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