Susan Lister and George Merkert have brought a couple of words to my attention that may reflect a trend. Susan asked me why we need swanky when it seems to mean the same thing as swank. George brought up faky which suffers from the same type of redundancy. When you add my favorite, crispy, to the list, it begins to take on the look of a trend. Is there a rule lurking somewhere beneath this trend?
The question is why do these redundant words (redundonyms?) exist? I know of no reason. My first reaction was that they represented the influence of motherese, the way we talk to babies when mothering them. This would place them in a class with other such words like horsy, doggy, potty, and yucky.
I also thought of the fact that English is losing its suffixes. Suffixes like -dom, -hood, -ery are used less and less often as English gravitates toward the language model of Chinese, which has no affixes at all (mentioned briefly in “Bad Grammar or Language Change?”) An interesting fact about this shift is that, while the suffixes marking them are disappearing, the functional categories these suffixes mark are remaining in the language. This means that fewer and fewer suffixes are marking the same number of grammatical categories resulting in growing suffix polysemy (multiple meanings).
My favorite example is the suffix -ing, which correspond es to a dozen Russian suffixes. This suffix now marks all the major parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs:
- Skiing is my favorite sport (noun)
- I was skiing when you called (verb)
- I find the sport amusing (adjective)
- Skiing down the mountain, I barely missed a tree (adverb)
The suffix -y is another that marks several categories: personal nouns (lefty, meany, softy), various adjectives (crusty, muddy, moldy), among others. Maybe -y is just taking over another function left behind by a suffix that is disappearing.
If the words in the first paragraph, faky, swanky, crispy, meant “somewhat Adj”, it might be taking over the work of -ish: faky “somewhat fake”. This doesn’t seem to be the case, however. The meanings seem to be identical crispy = crisp. The stems cannot be taken as nouns, so they are not adjectives like crusty and moldy.
This leaves me with the hypothesis that these are leftovers from motherese—not an elegant hypothesis but the only one I can come up with that fits at all.