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How English Words Are Made. Word-Building1


Before turning to the various processes of making words, it would be useful to analyse the related problem of the composition of words, i. e. of their constituent parts.

If viewed structurally, words appear to be divisible into smaller units which are called morphemes. Morphemes do not occur as free forms but only as constituents of words. Yet they possess meanings of their own.

All morphemes are subdivided into two large classes: roots (or radicals} and affixes. The latter, in their turn, fall into prefixes which precede the root in the structure of the word (as in re-read, mis-pronounce, un-well) and suffixes which follow the root (as in teach-er, cur-able, diet-ate).

Words which consist of a root and an affix (or several affixes) are called derived words or derivatives and are produced by the process of word-building known as affixation (or derivation).

Derived words are extremely numerous in the English vocabulary. Successfully competing with this structural type is the so-called root word which has only a root morpheme in its structure. This type is widely represented by a great number of words belonging to the original English stock or to earlier borrowings (house, room, book, work, port, street, table, etc.), and, in Modern English, has been greatly enlarged by the type of word-building called conversion (e. g. to hand, v. formed from the noun hand; to can, v. from can, п.; to pale, v. from pale, adj.; a find, n. from to find, v.; etc.).

Another wide-spread word-structure is a compound word consisting of two or more stems2 (e. g. dining-room, bluebell, mother-in-law, good-for-nothing). Words of this structural type are produced by the word-building process called composition.

The somewhat odd-looking words like flu, pram, lab, M. P., V-day, H-bomb are called shortenings, contractions or curtailed words and are produced by the way of word-building called shortening (contraction).

The four types (root words, derived words, compounds, shortenings) represent the main structural types of Modern English words, and conversion, derivation and composition the most productive ways of word-building.

To return to the question posed by the title of this chapter, of how words are made, let us try and get a more detailed picture of each of the major types of Modern English word-building and, also, of some minor types.




The process of affixation consists in coining a new word by adding an affix or several affixes to some root morpheme. The role of the affix in this procedure is Very important and therefore it is necessary to consider certain facts about the main types of affixes.

From the etymological point of view affixes are classified into the same two large groups as words: native and borrowed.

Some Native Suffixes1


  Noun-forming -er worker, miner, teacher, painter, etc.
-ness coldness, loneliness, loveliness, etc.
-ing feeling, meaning, singing, reading, etc.
-dom freedom, wisdom, kingdom, etc.
-hood childhood, manhood, motherhood, etc.
-ship friendship, companionship, mastership, etc.
-th length, breadth, health, truth, etc.
  Adjective-forming -ful careful, joyful, wonderful, sinful, skilful, etc.
-less careless, sleepless, cloudless, senseless, etc.
-y cozy, tidy, merry, snowy, showy, etc.
-ish English, Spanish, reddish, childish, etc.
-ly lonely, lovely, ugly, likely, lordly, etc.
-en wooden, woollen, silken, golden, etc.
-some handsome, quarrelsome, tiresome, etc.
Verb-forming -en widen, redden, darken, sadden, etc.
Adverb-forming -ly warmly, hardly, simply, carefully, coldly, etc.


Borrowed affixes, especially of Romance origin are numerous in the English vocabulary (Ch.3). It would be wrong, though, to suppose that affixes are borrowed in the same way and for the same reasons as words. An affix of foreign origin can be regarded as borrowed only after it has begun an independent and active life in the recipient language, that is, is taking part in the word-making processes of that language. This can only occur when the total of words with this affix is so great in the recipient language as to affect the native speakers' subconscious to the extent that they no longer realize its foreign flavour and accept it as their own.



* * *


Affixes can also be classified into productive and non-productive types. By productive affixes we mean the ones, which take part in deriving new words in this particular period of language development. The best way to identify productive affixes is to look for them among neologisms and so-called nonce-words, i. e. words coined and used only for this particular occasion. The latter are usually formed on the level of living speech and reflect the most productive and progressive patterns in word-building. When a literary critic writes about a certain book that it is an unputdownable thriller, we will seek in vain this strange and impressive adjective in dictionaries, for it is a nonce-Word coined on the current pattern of Modern English and is evidence of the high productivity of the adjective-forming borrowed suffix -able and the native prefix un-.

Consider, for example, the following:

Professor Pringle was a thinnish, baldish, dispeptic-lookingish cove with an eye like a haddock.

(From Right-Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse)


The adjectives thinnish and baldish bring to minddozens of other adjectives made with the same suffix; oldish, youngish, mannish, girlish, fattish, longish, yellowish, etc. But dispeptic-lookingish is the author's creation aimed at a humorous effect, and, at the same time, proving beyond doubt that the suffix -ish isa live and active one.

The same is well illustrated by the following popular statement: "I don't like Sunday evenings: I feel so Mondayish". (Mondayish is certainly a nonce-word.)

One should not confuse the productivity of affixes with their frequency of occurrence. There are quite & number of high-frequency affixes which, nevertheless, are no longer used in word-derivation (e. g. the adjective-forming native suffixes -ful, -ly; the adjective-forming suffixes of Latin origin -ant, -ent, -al which are quite frequent).


Some Productive Affixes


Noun-forming suffixes -er, -ing, -ness, -ism1 (materialism), -ist1 (impressionist), -ance
Adjective-forming suffixes -y, -ish, -ed (learned),-able, -less
Adverb-forming suffixes -ly
Verb-forming suffixes -ize/-ise (realize), -ate
Prefixes un- (unhappy), re- (reconstruct), dis- (disappoint)


Note. Examples are given only for the affixes which are not listed in the tables at p. 82 and p. 83.

Some Non-Productive Affixes


Noun-forming suffixes -th,-hood
Adjective-forming suffixes -ly, -some, -en, -ous
Verb-forming suffix -en


Note. The native noun-forming suffixes -dom and -ship ceased to be productive centuries ago. Yet, Professor I. V. Arnold in The English Word gives some examples of comparatively new formations with the suffix -dom: boredom, serfdom, slavedom [15]. The same is true about -ship (e. g- salesmanship). The adjective-forming -ish, which leaves no doubt as to its productivity nowadays, has comparatively recently regained it, after having been non-productive for many centuries.

Semantics of Affixes


The morpheme, and therefore affix, which is a type of morpheme, is generally defined as the smallest indivisible component of the word possessing a meaning of its own. Meanings of affixes are specific and considerably differ from those of root morphemes. Affixes have widely generalized meanings and refer the concept conveyed by the whole word to a certain category, which is vast and all-embracing. So, the noun-forming suffix -er could be roughly defined as designating persons from the object of their occupation or labour (painter — the one who paints) or from their place of origin or abode {southerner — the one living in the South). The adjective-forming suffix -ful has the meaning of "full of", "characterized by" (beautiful, careful) whereas -ish Olay often imply insufficiency of quality (greenish — green, but not quite; youngish — not quite young but looking it).

Such examples might lead one to the somewhat hasty conclusion that the meaning of a derived word is always a sum of the meanings of its morphemes: un/eat/able =» "not fit to eat" where not stands for un- and fit for: -able.

There are numerous derived words whose meanings can really be easily deduced from the meanings of their constituent parts. Yet, such cases represent only the first and simplest stage of semantic readjustment with in derived words. The constituent morphemes within derivatives do not always preserve their current meanings and are open to subtle and complicated semantic shifts.

Let us take at random some of the adjectives formed with the same productive suffix -y, and try to deduce the meaning of the suffix from their dictionary definitions:

brainy (inform.) — intelligent, intellectual, i. e, characterized by brains

catty — quietly or slyly malicious, spiteful, i. e, characterized by features ascribed to a cat

chatty — given to chat, inclined to chat

dressy (inform.) — showy in dress, i. e. inclined to dress well or to be overdressed

fishy (e. g. in a fishy story, inform.) — improbable, hard to believe (like stories told by fishermen)

foxy — foxlike, cunning or crafty, i. e. characterized by features ascribed to a fox

stagy — theatrical, unnatural, i. e. inclined to affectation, to unnatural theatrical manners

touchy — apt to take offence on slight provocation, i. e. resenting a touch or contact (not at all inclined to be touched)1

The Random-House Dictionary defines the meaning of the -y suffix as "characterized by or inclined to the substance or action of the root to which the affix is attached". [46] Yet, even the few given examples show that, on the one hand, there are cases, like touchy or fishy that are not covered by the definition. On the other hand, even those cases that are roughly covered, show a wide variety of subtle shades of meaning. It is not only the suffix that adds its own meaning to the meaning of the root, but the suffix is, in its turn, affected by the root and undergoes certain semantic changes, so that the mutual influence of root and affix creates a wide range of subtle nuances.

But is the suffix -y probably exceptional in this respect? It is sufficient to examine further examples to see that other affixes also offer an interesting variety of semantic shades. Compare, for instance, the meanings of adjective-forming suffixes in each of these groups of adjectives.

1. eatable (fit or good to eat)2

lovable (worthy of loving)

questionable (open to doubt, to question)

imaginable (capable of being imagined)

2. lovely (charming, beautiful, i. e. inspiring love)

lonely (solitary, without company; lone; the meaning of the suffix does not seem to add anything to that of the root)

friendly (characteristic of or befitting a friend.)

heavenly (resembling or befitting heaven; beautiful, splendid)

3. childish (resembling or befitting a child)

tallish (rather tall, but not quite, i. e. approaching the quality of big size)

girlish (like a girl, but, often, in a bad imitation of one)

bookish(1) given or devoted to reading or study;

(2) more acquainted with books than with real life, i. e. possessing the quality of bookish learning)

The semantic distinctions of words produced from the same root by means of different affixes are also of considerable interest, both for language studies and research work. Compare: womanly — womanish, floweryflowered -— flowering, starry — starred, reddenedreddish, shortened — shortish.

The semantic difference between the members of these groups is very obvious: the meanings of the suffixes are so distinct that they colour the whole words.

Womanly is used in a complimentary manner about girls and women, whereas womanish is used to indicate an effeminate man and certainly implies criticism.

Flowery is applied to speech or a style (cf. with the R. цветистый), flowered means "decorated with a patters of flowers" (e. g. flowered silk or chintz, cf. with the R, цветастый) and flowering is the same as blossoming (e. g. flowering bushes or shrubs, cf. with the R. цветущий).

Starry means "resembling stars" (e. g. starry eyes) and starred — "covered or decorated with stars" (e. g. starred skies).

Reddened and shortened both imply the result of an action or process, as in the eyes reddened with weeping or a shortened version of a story (i. e. a story that has been abridged) whereas shortish and reddish point to insufficiency of quality: reddish is not exactly red, but tinged with red, and a shortish man is probably a little taller than a man described as short.




When in a book-review a book is referred to as a splendid read, is read to be regarded as a verb or a noun? What part of speech is room in the sentence: I was to room with another girl called Jessie. If a character in a novel is spoken about as one who hadto be satisfied with the role of a has-been, what is this odd-looking has-been, a verb or a noun? One must admit that it has quite a verbal appearance, but why, then, is it preceded by the article?

Why is the word if used in the plural form in the popular proverb: If ifs and ans were pots and pans? (an = if, dial., arch.)

This type of questions naturally arise when one deals with words produced by conversion, one of the most productive ways of modern English word-building.

Conversion is sometimes referred to as an affixless way of word-building or even affixless derivation. Saying that, however, is saying very little because there are other types of word-building in which new words are also formed without affixes (most compounds, contracted words, sound-imitation words, etc.).

Conversion consists in making a new word from some existing word by changing the category of a part of speech, the morphemic shape of the original word remaining unchanged. The new word has a meaning Which differs from that of the original one though it can more or less be easily associated with it. It has also a new paradigm peculiar to its new category as a part of speech.

The question of conversion has, for a long time, been a controversial one in several aspects. The very essence of this process has been treated by a number of scholars (e. g. H. Sweet), not as a word-building act, but as a mere functional change. From this point of view the word hand in Hand me that book is not a verb, but a noun used in a verbal syntactical function, that is, hand (me) and hands (in She has small hands)are not two different words but one. Hence, the case cannot be treated as one of word-formation for no new word appears.


According to this functional approach, conversion may be regarded as a specific feature of the English categories of parts of speech, which are supposed to be able to break through the rigid borderlines dividing one category from another thus enriching the process of communication not by the creation of new words but through the sheer flexibility of the syntactic structures.

Nowadays this theory finds increasingly fewer supporters, and conversion is universally accepted as one of the major ways of enriching English vocabulary with new words. One of the major arguments for this approach to conversion is the semantic change that regularly accompanies each instance of conversion. Normally, a word changes its syntactic function without any shift in lexical meaning. E. g. both in yellow leaves and in The leaves were turning yellow the adjective denotes colour. Yet, in The leaves yellowed the converted unit no longer denotes colour, but the process of changing colour, so that there is an essential change in meaning.

The change of meaning is even more obvious in such pairs as hand > to hand, face > to face, to go > a go, to make > a make, etc.

The other argument is the regularity and completeness with which converted units develop a paradigm of their new category of part of speech. As soon as it has crossed the category borderline, the new word automatically acquires all the properties of the new category, so that if it has entered the verb category, it is now regularly used in all the forms of tense and it also develops the forms of the participle and the gerund. Such regularity can hardly be regarded as indicating a mere functional change which might be expected to bear more occasional characteristics. The completeness of the paradigms in new conversion formations seems to be a decisive argument proving that here we are dealing with new words and not with mere functional variants. The data of the more reputable modern English dictionaries confirm this point of view: they all present converted pairs as homonyms, i. e. as two words, thus supporting the thesis that conversion is a word-building process.

Conversion is not only a highly productive but also a particularly English way of word-building. Its immense productivity is considerably encouraged by certain features of the English language in its modern Stage of development. The analytical structure of Modern English greatly facilitates processes of making words of one category of parts of speech from words of another. So does the simplicity of paradigms of En-lush parts of speech. A great number of one-syllable Words is another factor in favour of conversion, for such words are naturally more mobile and flexible than polysyllables.

Conversion is a convenient and "easy" way of enriching the vocabulary with new words. It is certainly an advantage to have two (or more) words where there Was one, all of them fixed on the same structural and semantic base.

The high productivity of conversion finds its reflection in speech where numerous occasional cases of conversion can be found, which are not registered by dictionaries and which occur momentarily, through the immediate need of the situation. "If anybody oranges me again tonight, I'll knock his face off, says the annoyed hero of a story by O'Henry when a shop-assistant offers him oranges (for the tenth time in one night) instead of peaches for which he is looking ("Lit. tie Speck in Garnered Fruit"). One is not likely to find the verb to orange in any dictionary, but in this situation it answers the need for brevity, expressiveness and humour.

The very first example, which opens the section on conversion in this chapter (the book is a splendid read), though taken from a book-review, is a nonce-word, which may be used by reviewers now and then or in informal verbal communication, but has not yet found its way into the universally acknowledged English vocabulary.

Such examples as these show that conversion is a vital and developing process that penetrates contemporary speech as well. Subconsciously every English speaker realizes the immense potentiality of making a word into another part of speech when the need arises.

* * *


One should guard against thinking that every case of noun and verb (verb and adjective, adjective and noun, etc.) with the same morphemic shape results from conversion. There are numerous pairs of words (e. g. love, n. — to love, v.; work, n. — to work, v.; drink, n. — to drink, v., etc.) which did, not occur due to conversion but coincided as a result of certain historical processes (dropping of endings, simplification of stems) when before that they had different forms (e. g. O. E. lufu, n. — lufian, v.). On the other hand, it is quite true that the first cases of conversion (which were registered in the 14th c.) imitated such pairs of words as love, n. — to love, v. for they were numerous to the vocabulary and were subconsciously accepted by native speakers as one of the typical language patterns.


* * *


The two categories of parts of speech especially affected by conversion are nouns and verbs. Verbs made from nouns are the most numerous amongst the words produced by conversion: e. g. to hand, to back, to face, to eye, to mouth, to nose, to dog, to wolf, to monkey, to can, to coal, to stage, to screen, to room, to floor, to ^lack-mail, to blacklist, to honeymoon, and very many ethers.

Nouns are frequently made from verbs: do (e. g. This ifs the queerest do I've ever come across. Do — event, incident), go (e. g. He has still plenty of go at his age. Go — energy), make, run, find, catch, cut, walk, worry, show, move, etc.

Verbs can also be made from adjectives: to pale, to yellow, to cool, to grey, to rough (e. g. We decided sq rough it in the tents as the weather was warm), etc.

Other parts of speech are not entirely unsusceptible to conversion as the following examples show: to down, to out (as in a newspaper heading Diplomatist Outed from Budapest), the ups and downs, the ins and outs, like, n. (as in the like of me and the like of you).


* * *


It was mentioned at the beginning of this section that a word made by conversion has a different meaning from that of the word from which it was made though the two meanings can be associated. There are Certain regularities in these associations which can be roughly classified. For instance, in the group of verbs made from nouns some of the regular semantic associations are as indicated in the following list:

I. The noun is the name of a tool or implement, the verb denotes an action performed by the tool: to hammer, to nail, to pin, to brush, to comb, to pencil.

II. The noun is the name of an animal, the verb denotes an action or aspect of behaviour considered typical of this animal: to dog, to wolf, to monkey, to ape, to fox, to rat. Yet, to fish does not mean "to behave like a fish" but "to try to catch fish". The same meaning of hunting activities is conveyed by the verb to whale and one of the meanings of to rat; the other is "to turn informer, squeal" (sl.).

III. The name of a part of the human body — an action performed by it: to hand, to leg (sl.), to eye, to elbow, to shoulder, to nose, to mouth. However, to face does not imply doing something by or even with one's face but turning it in a certain direction. To back means either "to move backwards" or, in the figurative sense, "to support somebody or something".

IV. The name of a profession or occupation — an activity typical of it: to nurse, to cook, to maid, to groom.

V. The name of a place — the process of occupying" the place or of putting smth./smb. in it (to room, to house, to place, to table, to cage).

VI. The name of a container — the act of putting smth. within the container (to can, to bottle, to pocket).

VII. The name of a meal — the process of taking it (to lunch, to supper).

The suggested groups do not include all the great variety of verbs made from nouns by conversion. They just represent the most obvious cases and illustrate, convincingly enough, the great variety of semantic interrelations within so-called converted pairs and the complex nature of the logical associations which specify them.

In actual fact, these associations are not only complex but sometimes perplexing. It would seem that if you know that the verb formed from the name of an animal denotes behaviour typical of the animal, it would easy for you to guess the meaning of such a verb provided that you know the meaning of the noun. Yet, it is not always easy. Of course, the meaning of to fox is rather obvious being derived from the associated reputation of that animal for cunning: to fox means "to act cunningly or craftily". But what about to wolf? How is one to know which of the characteristics of the animal was picked by the speaker's subconscious when this verb was produced? Ferocity? Loud and unpleasant fowling? The inclination to live in packs? Yet, as the Hollowing example shows, to wolf means "to eat greedily, voraciously": Charlie went on wolfing the chocolate. (R. Dahl)

In the same way, from numerous characteristics of | be dog, only one was chosen for the verb to dog which is well illustrated by the following example:

And what of Charles? I pity any detective who would have to dog him through those twenty months.

(From The French Lieutenant's Woman by J. Fowles)


(To dog — to follow or track like a dog, especially with hostile intent.)


The two verbs to ape and to monkey, which might be expected to mean more or less the same, have shared between themselves certain typical features of the same animal:

to ape — to imitate, mimic(e. g. He had always aped the gentleman in his clothes and manners. — J. Fowles);

to monkey — to fool, to act or play idly and foolishly. To monkey can also be used in the meaning "to imitate", but much rarer than to ape.


The following anecdote shows that the intricacies ex semantic associations in words made by conversion may prove somewhat bewildering even for some native-speakers, especially for children.


"Mother", said Johnny, "is it correct to say you 'water a horse' when he's thirsty?"

"Yes, quite correct."

"Then", (picking up a saucer) "I'm going to milk the cat."


The joke is based on the child's mistaken association of two apparently similar patterns: water, п. — to water, v.; milk, n. — to milk, v. But it turns out that the meanings of the two verbs arose from different associations: to water a horse means "to give him water", but to milk implies getting milk from an animal (e. g, to milk a cow).



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