Tmesis: Abso-flaming-lutely!

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. 

Image by hpgruesen on Pixabay

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. 

Tmesis: Abso-flaming-lutely!
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Nuclear Does Not Rhyme With Circular

This post might come across as some kind of linguistic snobbery, and while that’s not my motivation, it is a risk I am willing to take. 

The common mispronunciation of nuclear is something that drives me absolutely nuts. 

So many people pronounce it as nucular ( nyoo-kyoo-lar) but that is not how it is spelt or pronounced. I’ve even heard scientists on the radio and TV who say it that way, despite the fact that scientists of all people should know better. Did they get through however many of years study at university calling the central body of a cell the nuculus? I think not.

Nuclear is a three syllable word, pronounced nyoo-klee-ar.

If someone can say the words ‘new’ and ‘clear’ correctly, they should be able to manage ‘nuclear’ by just mashing those two words together. Think of it as linguistic nuclear fusion. 

It really isn’t rocket science. 

Holy Moly, It’s a Minced Oath!

Oh gosh! I do this all the freaking time!

Having discussed the meaning of “not mincing one’s words” n my previous post, it seemed logical to explore the practice of using minced oaths. 

You might never have heard of a minced oath, but most of us use them all the time. 

A minced oath is a term we use instead of a swear word. Just as minced words are diplomatic so as to not cause offence, minced oaths are likewise designed to express surprise or to emphasise reactions or feelings without causing offence through swearing or blasphemy. 

Therefore, it’s a kind of euphemism: a word we use instead of a less polite or more uncomfortable term. We use them all the time, and there are probably thousands of them in common use in English. For example, we call the toilet “the bathroom”, we call dying “passing away” and the dead our “dearly departed”, and we refer to swearing as “colourful language”.

A minced oath can also work as an intensifier: it can give emphasis and power to a statement, just as effectively as a swearword or any other adjective or adverb. To say “that dratted virus” or “that freaking thing!” enables the speaker to inject more force and emotion into their statement without actually offending anyone.

21st century English is full of minced oaths.
Darn. Dang. Dagnabbit. Gosh. Golly. Jiminy. Jeepers Creepers. OMG. Geeze Louise. Heck. Holy Moly. Shut the front door. 
If we tried to list them all, we’d be here all day.

Some are closer to actual swearing than others — in fact, some come painfully close — but most are used without causing any real offence to most people. 

When I was a kid, my parents never allowed me to say anything that approximated ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ because they believed it was just as bad as using those names as blasphemy. My friends and I used to joke that “heck is where you go if you don’t believe in gosh or jeez’, but we still wouldn’t use those terms around our parents. In contrast, kids now are shocked to discover that those are the origins of their common expressions. 

It’s all part of the way in which language evolves and adapts to suit different purposes and situations. 

Holy Moly, It’s A Minced Oath!
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Mincing Your Words

We might still hear someone say “she doesn’t mince her words” but do we know what it means?

Anyone who knows me will affirm that I tend to say what’s on my mind, although I try to think before I speak and to be more tactful than I used to be. 

My mother used to remark to me that I had “a neat turn of phrase”, and would occasionally comment to others that I didn’t mince my words. I always took the first observation as a compliment, although I’m not sure it was ever really meant that way. The second, though, always seemed to be rather a strange image because it made me think of minced meat or minced fruit. 

Of course, “mince” is one of those words that has multiple meanings.  It can mean to chop or grind something into very small pieces.  It can mean to walk in small, affected, or dainty, steps. And, when it comes to words, it can mean to modify your language so as to not cause offence. 

All of those meanings relate to the idea of making something smaller or diminishing in size. It’s easy to see how ‘mince’ is related to other words such as diminish, miniature, minute, and minimise. 

The use of ‘mincing words’ to mean making them softer or more moderate goes as far back as the 1500s, and is a term used by Shakespeare himself. 

To mince one’s words means to speak in an indirect or perhaps a diplomatic way rather than stating something directly or bluntly. To do so is to make what you say less of a stumbling block, easier to move past or step over, or even easier to digest. 

Thus, to not mince one’s words means to speak without worrying about how the listener will feel or respond. 

Well, okay. That might sound a little like me. Sometimes. 

That has changed, though, as I have got a little older. 

If I am at home, or comfortable with the company I am in, I still tend to express my thoughts freely. Elsewhere, though, I feel as though I do not feel that freedom. And there are many occasions on which I simply couldn’t be bothered. One cannot, as the saying goes, fix stupid. 

These days, I often choose to simply remain silent when someone says or does something ridiculous, because there is no polite way to say what I am thinking. Thirty years’ experience as a teacher and a fair few years as an actor and performer have helped me refine my ability to keep my facial expression neutral, although I will admit that sometimes I just don’t bother. Some people should be thankful that the look on my face is all they get. 

So, it seems I do sometimes mince my words. On other occasions, I  mince them between my teeth and swallow them. 

Mincing Your Words.
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