The Grammarphobia Blog

An “ish” out of water?

Q: I was wondering about the usage of the suffix “ish” to mean a little bit like something, as in “He’s angryish” or “She’s friendlyish.” Most words with “ish” endings seem to mean fully something, like “British,” “snobbish,” or “Jewish,” not sort of something, like “busyish” or “prettyish.” Do you know the origin of this seemingly modernish usage?

A: You ask a very interesting question!

There are actually two “ish” suffixes in English. One comes from ancient Proto-Germanic and helps to form adjectives. The other comes to us from Latin by way of Old French and helps to form verbs.

First the verbs. Many end in “ish,” including “abolish,” “banish,” “finish,” “nourish,” “establish,” “tarnish,” and a lot of others. We adopted these verbs from Middle and Old French, where they ended in ir (abolir, banir, finir, and so on).

In French, the ir ending changes to iss to form extended verbs. (For example, “perish” is périr in French, and the ir changes to iss to form the extended verbs périssons, périssez, périssent, etc.) The French iss originated in Latin as isc, and in Middle English these adopted iss verbs were given endings of “isshe,” later to become “ish.”

Now for the adjectival “ish,” which is more to your point. We get this much older “ish” from a proto-Germanic suffix that’s been reconstructed as iskaz. Versions of it are common to many Germanic languages. In Old English, it’s recorded as isc.

In modern English, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, “ish” is added to nouns and to other adjectives to form adjectives with these meanings:

1. somewhat (as in “oldish”);

2. like a … (as in “childish”);

3. like that of a … (as in “girlish”);

4. of or having to do with … (as in “English”);

5. tending to … (as in “bookish”) or inclined to be a … (as in “thievish”);

6. near, but usually somewhat past (as in “fortyish”).

These “ish” adjectives are much more common now than they were in Old English. Writers have taken advantage of their versatility!

In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “in recent colloquial and journalistic use, -ish has become the favourite ending for forming adjs. for the nonce (esp. of a slighting or depreciatory nature) on proper names of persons, places, or things, and even on phrases.”

The OED gives the examples of “Micawberish, Spectator-ish, all-over-ish, at-homeish, devil-may-care-ish, jolly-good-fellowish, out-of-townish,” and others.

The use of “ish” with times of day, to indicate rough (or roughish!) times of arrival is a relatively new thing, originating less than a century ago. The first published example in the OED is from 1916, in this exchange from a collection of World War I fiction: “What time shall I come?” “Elevenish,” Sam replied.

I’m a bit busyish now, so I’ll end this here.

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