by Colin McIntosh About words: A blog from Cambridge Dictionaries
In a recent post we looked at the suffix –y, which we saw was one of the oldest and most productive affixes in English. Most affixes in English have been around for a long time, including native Old English prefixes like un– and international prefixes like hyper– and pre– from Greek and Latin, which are shared with many other languages. This week we’ll look at some of the newer prefixes and suffixes in English, most of which are, unusually, borrowed from other modern languages. Most are more restricted in their application, meaning that they can only be used with a limited set of words. That’s not to say that new ones can’t be invented, but their very specific meanings often tie them to particular contexts.
German has contributed two which have caught the imagination of English speakers. The German prefix über– corresponds to super– or over– in English, but when borrowed into English it is generally used to mean “extremely good or successful”, with a strong connotation of superiority. Often spelled as uber– in English, it seems to have entered English via the German concept of the Übermensch or Superman, created by the German philosopher Nietzsche, although the contexts in which it is used in English are more down-to-earth:
Über-model Gisele Bündchen has made her final catwalk appearance at São Paulo Fashion Week.
He went from dead-end job to uber-billionaire in just a few years.
Another German prefix with philosophical connotations is ur–. In German this is used to indicate that something is the source or origin of something, for example Ursache, “cause”. In English it is used to indicate things that are the earliest or primeval version of something. For example the urtext in literature is the original text from which another text is adapted, and the ur-language is the language from which all other languages may have developed.
Two recently borrowed suffixes are used to refer to people. –ista is used in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, and simply corresponds to –ist in English. Thanks to political groups like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the suffix became known in English, and was then adapted in a humorous way, often to refer to people who considered themselves revolutionary, but were actually rather frivolous. This use can be seen in the term fashionista, someone who works in the fashion industry, but often with the connotation of being pretentious and self-important. The other common –ista word, barista, someone who works in a coffee shop, has come directly from Italian, rather than having the political meaning.
Another humorous borrowing is –nik, originally from Russian but borrowed via the Yiddish word kibbutznik, someone (usually a young, enthusiastic person) who works on a kibbutz. In English the idea of young and enthusiastic has been retained, but the implication of being naive has been added to the original. This can be seen in words like beatnik, a young person in the swinging 60s who was into music and a free lifestyle, and peacenik, someone who opposes war, and shows this by protesting.
English has much to thank other languages for, not least for their injection of colour and humour.