The Grammarphobia Blog

Words to the wise

Q: How wise of WNYC to have you on the air! Which introduces my subject – the epidemic use of “wise” as a suffix. Example: “He’s not handling this well mediawise.” I’m reminded of the old Punch cartoon in which one owl is speaking to another about their baby: “How’s he shaping up wisewise?”

A: The word “wise” once had many more functions than it does now. For instance, it was a verb meaning to direct or guide or show the way (there may be an echo of this obscure usage in today’s expression “wise up”).

But more to the point, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was also a noun, meaning “manner, mode, fashion, style,” and specifically “habitual manner of action, habit, custom.”

It’s this noun use that survives in terms like “crosswise” and “likewise.” Although “wise” here is a noun at heart, the OED says, it “has the appearance of a suffix” and “has actually performed the function of a suffix.”

Since the days of Old English, according to the OED, “wise” has been used in adverbial expressions meaning “in such-and-such a manner, way, or respect.”

“Several of these expressions, with others formed on their pattern in later periods, have survived as simple words, e.g. anywise, crosswise, leastwise, likewise, nowise, otherwise, slantwise,” the dictionary says.

The OED has dozens of citations over the years for this usage, including “same wyse” (1300s), “mony vis” (“money wise,” 1375), “garden wyse” (1577), “Hind-foot-wise” (1725), “festoon-wise” (1743), “crutch-wise” (1851, from Melville’s Moby-Dick), “tailor-wise” (1885, from a description of priests sitting in a Buddha-like position); “serpent-wise” (1940), and so on.

Such compounds used in the same way but meaning “as regards” or “in respect of” are more recent, and this is where relatively new words like “mediawise” come in.

These terms are labeled “colloq. (orig. U.S.)” in the OED, and the first citation given is from 1942: “there are two types of hydrogen atoms positionwise.”

Other examples include “plotwise” (1948), “successwise” and “moneywise” (both 1958), “prize-wise” (1961), “job-wise” (1976), and “acting-wise” (1981).

Are these newer uses considered “colloquial” (that is, more fit for speech than for writing) by American lexicographers?

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says such words are associated with informal prose and should be avoided in formal writing. But Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) finds them unremarkable and doesn’t restrict them in any way.

By the way, the OED notes that “the synonymy of
-wise and -ways in such advs. as likeways, likewise, noways, nowise, led to their interchange and consequently the illogical use of -wise for -ways.”

Elsewhere, the editors write that most of the adverbs ending in “ways” are synonymous with actual or possible parallel words ending in “wise,” and that “the similarity of sound of the two suffixes has given rise to the notion that they are mere alternative forms of one and the same ending.”

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