Pia de Jong is a writer living in Princeton, N.J.
‘Pick you up tomorrow morning at 7 a.m.,” my friend says to me. I glance dubiously at my watch. That’s rush hour at my house.
“Okay,” she quickly adds, “make it 7-ish.”
Ah, with that little “-ish” tacked on, she gives me the extra time I’ll need to get ready. In her case — she has been there with her teenagers rushing for school in the morning — I assume she means about 10 minutes leeway. The ish my daughter grants me, if she needs to be picked up at school, is much shorter. Say, two minutes, max. After that, “Mom, where are you?!”
The suffix ish has been part of the English language for centuries — found in words such as “bookish,” “brutish”, “sheepish” and, well, “English.” Yet in recent years, it seems to have spread like linguistic kudzu, threatening to replace “like,” as in, like, total verbal tonnage.
ABC’s new comedy series “Black-ish” relies on ish as shorthand for an African American father’s anxiety about his family losing its culture and heritage after moving to a mostly white, upper-middle-class neighborhood. (“So just how Cosby-ish is ‘Black-ish’?” Ebony magazine asked.) Meanwhile, a new Web comedy called “Be Here Nowish” chronicles the lives of two 20-ish single women searching for spiritual meaning in Los Angeles.
The beauty of ish is that it is now acceptable behind virtually any noun or adjective. The weather is “fall-ish.” Sen. Rand Paul calls himself “libertarian-ish.” Lena Dunham’s new book is “memoir-ish.”
And, no longer confined to mere suffix status, ish has evolved to become a word in its own right. Slate offered the example: “Are you hungry?” “Yeah, ish.” (For those who might be curious, the use of ish as a synonym for “s---” has a separate etymology.)
Just as trained diplomats need to craft the proper ambiguous expression to move a negotiation forward, Americans now use ish as an all-purpose grease that eases communication.
To linguists, ish falls into the category of hedges, alongside “kinda,” “sorta,” “-esque” and “-oid.” “It’s a verbal downgrader,” says Deborah Tannen of Georgetown University. “A little addition that undercuts the words it goes with.” Tannen notes that ish can qualify what you’re saying — implying that it isn’t quite true — and can inoculate you from coming off as too sure of yourself, too overbearing.
Ish is perfectly suited to our commitment-phobic age, when the atomic clock has synchronized our smartphones, yet those same phones allow us to continually push deadlines and revise plans. We call the restaurant to ask: “Could you hold my table? I’m running a little late-ish.” We don’t want our time to be fixed. And so we look to language to give us more flexibility and freedom.
As the mother of three teenagers, I find that the urge to squirm out of the rigidity of words is especially strong among adolescents, who already feel locked in a cramped universe defined by parents and teachers. They are at that age when they move fluidly from blue-ish to happy-ish and back again. Why get overly specific? They favor vague-ish language that allows them to express themselves without getting pinned down in the process.
And so the ish phenomenon has colonized our family.
“Please don’t wear your new dress to back-to-school night,” my daughter says to me.
“What’s wrong with it?” I ask.
“It makes you look so old,” she says, then, mercifully, corrects herself. “It makes you look old-ish.”
Ish works especially well if you want to be concise in your texts or when talking. It adds context and yet is forgiving about imprecision. “What’s this movie about?” my daughter asks about a new film. “It’s too Lord of the Rings-ish,” my son replies. In other words: It’s not for you.
In my native language, Dutch, we have an equivalent –isch suffix attached to words that represents a happy kinship. A party with lots of good food and wine is bourgondisch. If it’s written heroically, in the style of Homer, it’s Homerisch. But the Dutch, too, have started to use the English ish, an unfamiliar but easily pronounceable combination in our language. I have heard a gaudy TV set described as nachtclub-ish.
When my son recently wrote a story for English class, his teacher called it “Kafkaesque.” Of course my son was pleased with the compliment, but he was uncomfortable with the word.
“ ‘Kafkaesque’ is so, like, pompous,” he said. “It’s what teachers say. I guess it means it’s like Kafka but is not Kafka.” My son might as well have said it’s too schoolmarm-ish.
“The best writing is when you say exactly what you mean,” I told him. “Not -esque. Just you.”
“Yes,” he said with a serious expression. “When it’s very me-ish.”