A pivotal moment in Billy Wilder’s 1960 film “The Apartment” has Jack Lemmon saying: “That’s the way it crumbles … cookie-wise!”
As you might guess, the acerbic Wilder is poking fun at the “windfoggery” of office life. Lemmon plays Baxter, a clerk in an insurance office who curries favor with the firm’s execs not only by aping their language, but also by lending them his apartment for illicit trysts.
The movie’s dialogue eagerly plays on the windfoggery theme. An exec says: “Premium-wise and billing-wise, we are 18 percent ahead of last year, October-wise.” Lemmon says to the Shirley MacLaine character: “As far as I’m concerned you’re tops. I mean, decency-wise.” And when she asks if she should light candles, he responds: “It’s a must! Gracious living-wise.”
Borrowing from the dialogue, the film’s tagline announced: “Movie-wise, there has never been anything like it – laugh-wise, love-wise or otherwise-wise!”
That was funny and novel stuff 45 years ago. But recently a TV news anchor said that “budget-wise and policy-wise preplanning” should be “finalized” soon. I half-expected him to conclude: And that’s the way it crumbles … newswise. More, I half-expected him to stick his finger down his throat and cry: “Who’s writing this drivel?”
What is this malignant “prefixation” and “suffixation” disease? We know it’s epidemic when media writers pick it up — when a news anchor can read perfectly atrocious copy with a perfectly straight face.
“-Ize” and “-wise” are great offenders; so is the prefix “pre” (loosely meaning before). We’ve grown used to “Let’s see what the picture is, weather-wise” instead of the sleeker “Let’s see what the weather is.” But consider a reporter who is examining “certain contemporary themes, family-wise and religion-wise.”
Democratize, crystallize and theorize are examples of nouns legitimately made verbs by adding the suffix “-ize.” But a slain officer’s being “funeralized” the next day? A reviewer who writes that a film is a “fictionized,” rather than fictional, account?
Should we call those coinages “verbized” nouns?
Ungainly suffixes and prefixes detract from precision and polish. Happily, ugly words typically don’t catch on if there’s already a more attractive word for the job. Or even if they do catch on, they’re still widely despised – the offensive utilize instead of use, for example, a pretentious reminder of our enchantment with unnecessary syllables.
It’s true that prefixes and suffixes can create attractive and economical new words that strengthen expression. The suffix “-wise” makes legitimate and useful adverbs such as lengthwise or crosswise. Likewise, likewise.
As professional writers and editors, we need to know the difference between the refined and the ridiculous.
Take the prefix “pre-.” Prejudice, for example, comes from “pre” and “judge,” a meaningful combination that defines the careless habit of closed minds – judging before knowing or considering the facts.
Prescient, too, is a word of unique intent, combining roots that mean “fore” and “knowledge.” And it’s easy to see why precaution caught on: to take care beforehand. Prehistory is meaningful as well: What happened before we started recording it.
But the flight attendant’s “pre-board,” which apparently means to get on the plane before you get on the plane. What do you do once you’ve pre-boarded? Get off the plane so you can board?
Doesn’t “pre-register” really just mean registering early? Once you’ve registered, you’re registered. By the same token, how can anything be “pre-arranged”? You must arrange beforehand. Or “pre-established”? Once we’ve pre-established, must we re-establish in order to establish?
And “prequel.” Clever but freaky. “Sequel,” from a Latin root meaning “to follow,” was sensible. Then along came “prequel,” meaning something preceding in action but following in presentation. Can you, um, follow that?
A builder “pre-sells” units in a housing project still under construction. Yes, I understand he’ll use that money to finish the project, but what’s going to happen after he’s pre-sold and we’ve pre-purchased? Isn’t he really just selling, and we just buying?
We’re told we’re “pre-approved” for credit cards or loans — for which we must still apply and be approved. So what does “pre-approved” mean? Maybe: We have your name and address.
Is something so wrong with the concept of a used car that we must instead buy a “pre-owned” vehicle?
One of the worst cases of “prefixation” is the term “pre-writing.” Does that mean, as one would guess, writing before you write? It does not; it doesn’t mean writing at all. It means organizing, thinking, planning. Fact is, there’s no such thing as “pre-writing.” You’re either writing or you’re not. If you’re doing something else, you’re not writing, pre- or otherwise.
Notice that word planning above. Even among the linguistic oddities we’re discussing, “preplanning” is notable. All planning must be in advance, so “preplanning” seems to mean something akin to planning to plan.
My husband once found an out-of-print book I’d wanted and bought it for me. Because it was used, he warned (prewarned?) in a flyleaf note that the book was “pre-read.”
But he was kidding.
Paula LaRocque, former writing coach at The Dallas Morning News, is author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and of Championship Writing, available at www.marionstreetpress.com, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.