Q: I’ve always thought of tmesis as a newish, nifty linguistic device for being emphatic, folksy, funny, or just plain crude. However, I recently read “A Hymn to Christ,” where John Donne uses it twice in the first stanza. So does tmesis have a respectable literary past? And is “whatsoever” (the word Donne splits) an example of it?
A: Let’s begin by explaining this linguistic critter for readers of the blog who aren’t familiar with the term “tmesis” (pronounced TMEE-sis).
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged, defines “tmesis” as a “separation of parts of a compound word by the intervention of one or more words (as what place soever for whatsoever place).”
When we see tmesis these days, it’s usually used for emphasis or humor, often by inserting a crude term between the parts of the compound word.
Here are a few examples of these buttinskies in compound words: “abso-damn-lutely” … “a whole nother” … “un-fucking-believable” … “any-bloody-body” … “god-freaking-awful.”
The earliest example of tmesis in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1592 definition of the term that includes this example: “What might be soeuer vnto a man pleasing” (“What might be soever unto a man pleasing”).
As you suspect, tmesis has a respectable literary past. In fact, it’s been used as a poetic device since classical times, though it didn’t show up in English until the 16th century. The term ultimately comes from the Greek verb temnein (to cut).
Interestingly, “whatsoever,” the compound used in the OED and Webster’s examples, is the same term that’s split twice in the 1619 poem you cite. Here are the opening lines, which describe Donne’s concerns as he sets off on a trip across the Channel:
“In what torn ship soever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem of Thy ark;
What sea soever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of Thy blood.”
Here are some literary examples of tmesis in Shakespeare, from the late 16th and early 17th centuries:
“This is not Romeo, he’s some other where,” Romeo and Juliet
“That man, how dearly ever parted,” Troilus and Cressida
“If on the first, how heinous e’er it be,” Richard II
You’ve asked if “whatsoever” itself is an example of tmesis.
At first glance, it looks as if it is indeed a textbook example, with “so” inserted between the two parts of “whatever” for emphasis.
But “whatsoever” has been an English word since the early 14th century, a combination of the archaic “whatso” and “ever,” according to the OED. In fact, “soever” was also a word, though it showed up a couple of hundred years after “whatsoever.”
As for other “-soever” words, most have origins similar to that of “whatsoever.”
The pronoun “whosoever” was originally formed from “whoso” and “ever,” the adverb “whensoever” from “whenso” and “ever,” the adverb “wheresoever” from “whereso” and “ever,” and so on.
The “-soever” word that comes closest to being an example of tmesis is “howsoever,” but the OED says it originated in the 16th century by combining “how” and “so” and “ever,” not by sticking “so” in the middle of “however.”
By the way, we wrote a posting earlier this year about compound words, and included a list of triple compounds from a reader.
We’ll end this with a modern literary example of tmesis, from Kingsley Amis’s 1960 comic novel Take a Girl Like You: “It’s a sort of long cocktail—he got the formula off a barman in Marrakesh or some-bloody-where.”
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