Lexicon Valley

“Y” So Creative? A Very Adjective-y Letter

An adjective-y letter that’s both old-timey and now-y.

Gretchen McCulloch

This all went down in the past month:

  • Facebook comment: “As I know from my rednecky upstate second hometown. … “
  • Email from a friend: “This morning I was thinking that my hairdresser is getting so Jesus-y with me.”
  • Headline from the Baltimore City Paper: “College Guys, Stop Being So Rapey.”
  • Homer Simpson line, to Bart: “Hey, boy, we’re supposed to be acting religiousy.” (Admittedly, this came from a 2010 episode, “The Greatest Story Ever D’Ohed,” but I saw it a couple of weeks ago during the Simpsons marathon.)
  • Blog post from Lockhart Steele: “the web ecosystem will always be bloggy at its core.”
  • Article in Medium: “Advertisers are perplexed and a little angst-y.”
  • Tweet: “Rewatching the vmas and it just makes me realize how awesome female musicians are, especially this year and I’m feeling very girl power-y.”
  • Essay in Huffington Post: ” … little IKEA pencils and ribbon-y plastic tape measures.”
  • Not sure where I got this one but it’s too good to leave out: “The neighborhoods get a lot less name-y in that part of Brooklyn.”
  • Tweet from @bengreenman: “For some reason, this episode of @SHO_Masters seems especially bowtie-y.”
  • Jonathan Lethem on Fresh Air: “It was really one of the most doomy things to say to a kid. [My grandmother] would say, it doesn’t matter what you think you are. When the Nazis come, you’re a Jew.”
  • Article on redeyechicago.com: “Feminism is the idea that men and women should be equal in the work force, at home, in society, on all of the levels. Most people except for some unsavory, trolly extremists can get behind this general notion.”

What the examples have in common, obviously, is an unfamiliar adjective made by putting a at the end of a noun or verb. I hasten to say that I’m not claiming this is in any way a new phenomenon. The OED’s exegesis of the formation establishes that beyond any doubt:

The general sense of this suffix is “having the qualities of” or “full of” that which is denoted by the n. [noun] to which it is added, as icy = (1) of the nature of, having the appearance, hardness, coldness, slipperiness, transparency, etc. of ice; (2) full of or covered with ice….. the following fresh coinages are exemplified first from texts before 1300, dready, fiery, frighty, hairy…, happy, needy, sleepy…,tidy (c.1250 = in good condition). … The fourteenth cent., esp. the later half, was prolific in new formations; to this period belong angry, bushy, earthy, fatty, flowery, heady, hearty, milky, miry, mouldy, mucky, naughty, smokysweaty, and many more. The sixteenth cent. was also a prolific period; to it belong, e.g. cottony, frothy, dirty, healthy, leafy (but leavy is 15th cent.), mealy, saucy, sugary, viny, woolly, yeasty. Others, such as bulkymeasly, noisy (Dryden), peppery, racy, skyey [I love that one] are recorded first from the 17th cent.

As early as the 13th century, reports the OED, verbs as well as nouns started taking on a Y to “express the meaning ‘inclined or apt to’ do something, or ‘giving occasion to’ a certain action; … Chaucer has sleepy = soporific. In the 16th cent. arose choky, drowsy, slippy, sticky; later we find blowy, clingy, floaty, quavery, rollicky.

So it’s a longtime thing. I’m convinced that we’re in the middle of another “prolific period,” in fact far more prolific than the 16th century, in fact the most prolific one of all time. The nature of our current discourse—especially our online discourse—is such that a great premium is placed on saying things in new and unexpected ways, and also on saying things fast and shorthandy because, well, cultural ADHD. Break down that great sentence “The neighborhoods get a lot less name-y in that part of Brooklyn.” It is saying something like, “In that part of Brooklyn, it’s often hard to tell precisely which neighborhood you are in at a given moment.” If anyone actually wrote, “In that part of Brooklyn, it’s often hard to tell precisely which neighborhood you are in at a given moment,” many if not most readers would be gone by the end of it, having left behind the dreaded abbreviation TLDR: too long; didn’t read.

One sign of the current prolificness is that a new adjective is now made when there’s a well-established adjective with the same root that means the same, or close to the same, thing. “Angsty” is more or less the same as “anxious”; yet it somehow feels more nowy. Another sign is that words are being coined, like “name-y” and “bowtie-y” that, almost certainly, will never be used again. (That, as well as the common use of a hyphen before the Y in written formulations, suggests to me a self-consciousness bordering on preciousness that’s characteristic of the current moment.) And finally, the Y is added not only to nouns and verbs but also to phrases (“girl power-y”) and adjectivesThe Simpsons used “religiousy,” and I find on a blog, “not everything is thru happiness of course there are saddy moments too.” That’s no one-off; Urban Dictionary has an entry and definition for “saddy.” No “happyy” yet, but give it time.

A version of this post appeared on Lingua Franca. Follow @lexiconvalley on Twitter or on Facebook