The political iconicity of denominative suffixes in science (or, phonesthemic tints and taints in the coining of science domain names)

Isis. 2007 Jun;98(2):290-309. doi: 10.1086/518189.


How are names for new disciplinary fields coined? Here a new (and fun) way to look at the history of such coinages is proposed, focusing on how phonesthemic tints and taints figure in decisions to adopt one type of suffix rather than another. The most common suffixes used in such coinages ("-logy," "-ics," etc.) convey semantic and evaluative content quite unpredictable from literal (root) meanings alone. Pharmaceutical manufacturers have long grasped the point, but historians have paid little attention to how suffixes of one sort or another become productive. A romp through examples from English shows that certain suffixes have become "hard" or "soft" in consequence of the status of their most prominent carrier disciplines. The "-ics" ending came to signify hardness in consequence of the prestige of physics, for example (with "-metrics" as the arteriosclerosis of suffixes), while lower-status (less "hard") disciplines have developed alternate endings (such as "studies"). Some suffixes are eschewed for their perceived ideologic slant (the "-isms," for example). Historians of science need to think more about the pragmatics of language, a task made easier by information technologies and databases that allow searches for words by suffix and first known use.

MeSH terms

  • Semantics
  • Terminology as Topic*