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Linguistic dysfunction - before and after

As the election campaign grinds on into its fifth long year, let us turn aside today and consider something altogether higher, that is, the grand workings of the English language. Yes, it's time to welcome back Professor Wordsmith to answer all your linguistic inquiries, and this week he is taking questions on the mysterious world of prefixes and suffixes. All yours, prof!

How do you mean, prefixes and suffixes?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Blimey, don't they teach you anything in school these days?

No, not much, apart from unarmed combat.

Professor Wordsmith writes: Oh. Well, a prefix is something that goes on the front of a word and a suffix goes on the back.

Like a red nose goes on the front of a car and a sign saying "Windsurfers do it standing up" on the back?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Something like that. Take a word like "polytechnic". The main part of the word is "technic", which is a Greek word meaning "art" or "skill". The "poly" bit is a suffix meaning "many" in Greek, so "polytechnic" means a place offering many skills.

But all polytechnics have become universities now, haven't they?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Yes.

Well, uni- means "one", not "many" like poly-. So should universities be called multiversities?

Professor Wordsmith writes: No.

Why not?

Professor Wordsmith writes: It would take too long to explain.

I have got all the time in the world.

Professor Wordsmith writes: Well, I haven't. Next question, please!

In the word "megabyte" is "mega-" the prefix or "-byte" the suffix?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Well, mega- is the prefix, but actually they've got it wrong. It is meant to mean "many bytes", but "mega" isn't Greek for "many" - it's Greek for big. So it should be "polybyte". "Megabyte" just means "big byte". Technocrats often get things like this wrong. When they called non-stereophonic records "monaural", they got it wrong. "Monaural" means, "having just one ear". What they should have said was "monophonic".

I have noticed that "dys-" has become a very popular prefix, as in "dystopian" and "dysfunctional". Is there a word "dysphonic" and could I use it?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Yes, there is, but it doesn't refer to a nasty noise, as you probably hope. It refers to a speech defect, from "dysphonia". The word you want is "cacophonous", which does mean bad noise in Greek. If you're looking for new words, one nice one waiting to be picked up and made trendy is "dysphoria", which is the opposite of "euphoria".

"Dysphonia" and "dysphoria" sound more like the names of flowers to me.

Professor Wordsmith writes: Well spotted! The commonest way of forming a flower name is in fact to add -ia to a name, as in buddleia or dahlia, or poinciana, or poinsettia.

Do poinciana and poinsettia come from the same man?

Professor Wordsmith writes: No. One comes from a Frenchman called de Poinci and the other from an American called JB Poinsett.

So, could a "sinfonietta" be a flower named after a man called Mr Sinfoniett?

Professor Wordsmith writes: No. If it were a flower, it would have to be a "sinfoniettia".

Then why isn't it called a "poinciania" in that case?

Professor Wordsmith writes: You got me there, squire. Touche. Next, please!

Are there any prefixes or suffixes one should avoid using?

Professor Wordsmith writes: I should steer clear of words ending in -ette and -aid if I were you. -Ette was always a very useful diminutive suffix used to form "cigarette" from "cigar" and "courgette" from "courge", but it has now been ruined by BBC people and by Ray Charles.

Come again?

Professor Wordsmith writes: I think it was Ray Charles who first used the suffix to signify a backing group, as in "Ray Charles and the Raelettes". And it was all those camp producers at the BBC who started talking about "featurettes" and "notettes" and "memoettes". Nowadays you even get floppy discs called Diskettes.

Hmm. What about -iad?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Oh, this is something that has suddenly appeared in 1997 with Schubert's bicentenary, and the word Schubertiad.

What's wrong with that?

Professor Wordsmith writes: Nothing, except that nowadays, when we put "-aid" on the end of everything to mean a charity concert, like Bandaid or Worldaid, everyone thinks the word is Schubertaid, and that it's some sort of gig in aid of poor bachelors dying of syphilis in Vienna.

Thanks, Prof, and keep those questions rolling in!