Tmesis— pronounced teh-MEE-sis— is an unusual word that many people will never have heard of, even though it’s the name for something we do frequently and quite naturally.
Tmesis is the name given to that linguistic behaviour by which we divide a word and insert another word into the middle. In the 21st century, the inserted word is often a swear word, but it doesn’t have to be.
We do it to add emphasis and increase the strength of what we’re saying.
The Ancient Greek word temnein meant ‘to cut’, and from that came the word tmesis, which meant ‘cutting’. It refers to the cutting or division of the first word in order to insert the second.
The practice is centuries old. There are examples of it in Old Irish and Scandinavian poetry, although the earliest written examples of it being used in English only date back to the 1500s.
Shakespeare used tmesis in a number of his plays:
- “This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.” — Romeo and Juliet
- “How heinous ever it be” — Richard II
- “That man – how dearly ever parted.” — Troilus and Cressida
Tmesis also exists in the poetry of John Donne:
“In what torn ship soever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem,
What seas soever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of thy blood.” — Hymn to Christ
From these examples, it is clear that the device has always been used to strengthen the idea or emotion being communicated, which is exactly how it’s still used today.
In Australia, where we seem to love a good swear word and the power it gives our expressions, tmesis is so common that it seems to me to be part of our linguistic identity. Inserting a term such as ‘flaming” or ‘flipping’, or one’s preferred swear word, into words and phrases is a standard part of our speech. From “abso-flaming-lutely’ to “no freaking way!”, Australians have made tmesis their own without ever knowing that it was a literary device or that it has a name.
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