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the separation of a word into parts by inserting one or more words in the middle
'There are few pleasures on TV to equal QI (BBC2), in which Stephen Fry pours erudition liberally over insubordinate comics like honey on waffles. It is pure tmesis which, he explained, was the splitting of a word to include another, as in abso-blooming-lutely wonderful.'The Guardian 3rd October 2003
Tmesis is a long-established word in English, which has remained relatively obscure, though it refers to the well-known creative process of splitting existing words and placing others in between. This is a productive process of word formation, often also described by theoretical linguists as infixation, but used specifically for the purpose of adding emphasis. Conventional definitions of tmesis refer to the division of compound words, like for instance, the splitting of whatsoever in what place soever or what man soever. However, there is plenty of current evidence for tmesis occurring in, not just compound words, but also between morphemes (word components) with analyzable meaning, as in im-bloody-possible and even purely between syllables as in abso-blooming-lutely.
modern use of tmesis is almost exclusively confined to
the infixation of expletives
Abso-blooming-lutely was first famously used by the character Eliza Doolittle in George Bernard Shaw's classic play Pygmalion (1916), but the use of tmesis has been revisited in recent years in the language of fictional characters such as David Brent in the BBC comedy series The Office, or Rachel in the UK television drama series Cold Feet, who popularised the use of fan-bloody-tastic. Modern use of tmesis is almost exclusively confined to the infixation of expletives such as blooming, bloody or worse!
The term tmesis is based on the same word in Greek, meaning 'cutting', and developed from the Greek verb temnein, 'to cut'. An often quoted original example of tmesis is the splitting of the word however in Shakespeare's Richard II:
'If on the first, how heinous e'er it be, To win thy after-love I pardon thee.'
Tmesis normally occurs in words that have three or more syllables, and the infixed word generally occurs before the syllable which bears the stress, hence fan-bloody-tastic rather than fantas-bloody-tic.
This article was first published on 17th January 2004.
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