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Suffixery

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Letter to the editor, “The Guardian,” April 22, 2017

Kory Stamper, associate editor of Merriam-Webster and author of the new book Word By Word: The Secret Life Of Dictionaries, appeared on NPR’s Fresh Air on April 19. I turned to the transcript of the interview to look up something I heard, and I found: “So in speech, I don’t police people’s speech. I think that’s jerkery (ph) of the highest order when people do that.”

I love the ph. It means that the transcriber was not familiar with jerkery, found nothing when looking it up in Merriam-Webster and other dictionaries (including UrbanDictionary.com!), and thus offered a phonetic spelling. But Stamper didn’t make up jerkery. A Google search yields about 10,500 hits (some admittedly misspellings of beef jerky), including this 2015 article from The Guardian:

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The first uses seem to be from 2007, including this from Charles V. Payne’s book Be Smart, Act Fast, Get Rich: “I said on-air once that ‘jerkery knows no pedigree.’ It’s not money that corrupts the wallet, but indifference and dismissiveness that corrupts the soul.” (And among the most recent is an indisputable sentiment expressed in Ms. Stamper’s book: “Jerkery, like stupidity and death, is an ontological constant in our universe.”)

I myself had never heard jerkery, either (hence my consultation of the transcript). But I was familiar with how it was made: adding the suffix -ery to noun A, creating noun B, meaning roughly “the state, quality, or product of A-ness.” It’s a vogue construction, and if you go to the Wiktionary page titled “Category: English words suffixed with -ery,” you’ll find hundreds of examples, including do-goodery, douchebaggery, feelgoodery, gasbaggery, geekery, halfwittery, pipsqueakery, and windbaggery. There’s also an example that can’t be printed in Lingua Franca.

The most popular such word, I would say, with more than 360,000 Google hits, is assholery. The top definition on UrbanDictionary.com:

Actions or behavior consistent with being an asshole
I was fired in my boss’s latest fit of assholery.

One of Wiktionary’s two earliest citations for the word is from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973): “Decisions are never really made — at best they manage to emerge, from a chaos of peeves, whims, hallucinations and all around assholery.” It appeared three years later in the attorney Florynce Kennedy’s book Color Me Flo, describing a client with an abusive husband: “I had helped her threaten to arrest him, and stopped his assholery.”

Why did noun-ery get so popular as a humorous, or perhaps semi-humorous, construction? Mainly because it’s marked — linguists’ term for words or phrases that sound odd and thus get noticed by listeners or readers. (The ones that sound normal are “unmarked.”) The most common way to form state-of-A nouns is first to make an adjective from A, then add the suffix -ness, as in peacefulness, foolishness, problematicness, or raininess.  That is, if Kory Stamper had wanted to be unmarked (or at least less marked), she would have said, “that’s jerkiness of the highest order.”

There are some older -ery nouns, but not many of them, and they tend to fall in a few distinct categories. Some are actually -er verbs with a y added to them, like delivery, discovery, or flattery. Others, as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, are borrowed from the French, such as battery, bravery, cutlery, nunnery, and treacheryThe OED goes on to say that -ery occasionally is used to

denote classes of goods, as “confectionery,” “ironmongery,” “pottery”; after the analogy of such words, the suffix is added to ns. [nouns] with a general collective sense (= ‘-ware’, ‘-stuff’, or the like) as in “crockery,” “machinery,” “scenery.” The words formed by adding -ery to ns. sometimes (though rarely) signify a state or condition, as “slavery”; oftener the force of the suffix is ‘that which is characteristic of, all that is connected with’, in most cases with contemptuous implication, as in “knavery,” “monkery,” “popery.”

That last “contemptuous” category (which also includes trickery, tomfoolery, and jiggery-pokery) was picked up on and revived by Pynchon and his legion of followers. Well done, them. But the problem with vogue formulations — including the because x construction and the odd -y adjectives like rapey and angsty — is that in the wink of an eye, what once sounded fresh and clever starts to feel tired and clichéd. At first the -ery suffix was a nice piece of of I-see-what-you-did-there-ery. But already it has a whiff of assclownery. Pretty soon it will come off as full-blown douchebaggery.

Thanks to Ben Zimmer and Mark Liberman.

 

 

 

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