"Ish" Is The Drive-Thru Of AdjectivesDr.Peggy Drexler

There’s the suffix -ish, increasingly called-upon, fairly indiscriminately, to describe an approximation, or a likeness of something, when in most cases there is an existing word, or two, that would serve just as well: “warmish,” “tired-ish,” “doing a good job-ish,” “Clinton-ish.”

Instead, -ish may be chosen for reasons of expediency, or cuteness. A sampling of some recent headlines from around the web include “5 Ways To Secure Your Happy-ish Ever After” (The Huffington Post) because, as the author writes, “Happily Ever After is not a thing” and “Ten(ish) Questions With… WR Jeremy Ross” (ESPN) because there are, in fact, 16. A while back, news magazine Slate described Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett as “Birther-ish” in a piece about Bennett’s multiple requests to verify President Obama’s Hawaii birth, an easy, libel-unfriendly way to call the guy a birther without actually calling him a birther. The website Jezebel (which itself has been described by others as “feminist-ish,” because it often, but not always, skews feminist) is a great admirer of the suffix, with some of the best headlines over the last few years including “Good-ish News,” to introduce a story about a Wisconsin judge who issued a restraining order on a law restricting abortion, though the law was still in play; “This is Me at 13-ish,” because the author wasn’t quite sure how old she was in the accompanying photo; “Creepy SARS-ish Virus Might Be Originating in Bats,” because it was easier than describing the actual virus; and a recurring feature called “Vintage-ish News. Even the ever-serious The Economist is in on the act, with the recent We Wish You a Merry(ish) Christmas, a piece about the benefits of raising the price of alcohol, because a sober holiday is, apparently, less merry than a drunk one.

While -ish serves to get a point across economically and is, in that sense, both very modern and more or less inoffensive, it requires no cleverness whatsoever. It’s lazy, non-committal, and confoundingly ambiguous, a symbol of a society ever more inclined to take the easy way out or blur the lines. You might ask a friend: What time will you be here? She may reply, “5-ish.” Someone who calls themselves Jew-ish as opposed to Jewish, may take a more moderate approach to Judaism, perhaps eschewing synagogue or getting a Christmas tree “for the kids.” That is, in it, but not into it.

-Ish is, no doubt, convenient, the drive-thru of adjectives. I’ll give it that. But, like a steady diet of fast food, -ish, not used in moderation, will catch up to you. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ” -ish is an increasingly popular suffix in the speech of today’s youth. It can pretty much be tacked on at the end of any word.” But is a one-size-fits-all word what we really want from our language? Or, for that matter, our way of seeing the world and each other?

Featured image via Shutterstock

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  1. Thanks for writing this article! I’ve noticed -ish becoming used more often.

    “It’s lazy, non-committal, and confoundingly ambiguous, a symbol of a society ever more inclined to take the easy way out or blur the lines. You might ask a friend: What time will you be here? She may reply, ’5-ish.’”

    Absolutely agree! It’s used for when something is uncertain or open to change. My friends and I tend to use -ish for time, just like your example, mainly because sometimes using public transit doesn’t mean we’ll arrive on-time. Haha!