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OnWords: "-ish"



A friend and colleague of mine challenged me to comment on the suffix “ish,” and I must admit a certain fondness for the subject.

As current and former students of mine know, I’m prone to giving out grades like “B plus-ish.” I don’t grade papers this way in order to confuse or annoy, but to represent the inherent subjectivity of the grading process and the inability of the grading scale to really represent the complexity of written work.

Thus, if you get a B plus-ish from me, the idea is to look at the comments, not the grade.

I think the use of “ish” often happens in situations where the right word to describe what we’re trying to describe either doesn’t exist or can’t be readily brought to mind. We might say that a painting is “Wyeth-ish” to describe a resemblance that can’t necessarily be called an homage, an influence that doesn’t fall to the level of a rip-off.

“Ish” has also started to be used as a clean(ish) version of a non-radio-friendly term for feces, so the context of our ish-ing determines the care with which the suffix must be used.

But my fondness for it makes me worry that ish will be permanently tainted with the stink of an unnecessary amelioration. After all, what happened to “crap” such that “ish” needs to supplant it?

If we must avoid strong language, we’d do better to get creative-ish than lose a perfectly good suffix along the way.