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The Word

Special sauces

New ways to end well

By Erin McKean
April 19, 2009
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IS SOMETHING MORE awesome than a mere awesome can convey? Or, worse, more lame than can be expressed by the four little letters l-a-m-e? Something make you happier than happy? Need to proclaim that there is just too much drama going on? There's a simple, emphatic solution: just add some sauce. Something awesomesauce is just dripping with awesome, something happysauce brims over with happiness. You should avoid getting too deeply involved in someone else's dramasauce, and something lamesauce, of course, is wallowing in lameness.

Affixing for emphasis is absolutely not new: we all know that something can be mega-cool, uber-dorky, super-friendly, ultra-expensive, or even giga-evil. We've all seen emphatic blend words, too: fantabulous (fantastic + fabulous), ginormous (gigantic + enormous). We're even comfortable with parts of proper names being repurposed: Watergate begat numerous other -gates; Godzilla gave us the omnipresent bridezilla; and Frankenstein sired all sorts of Frankenwords (including Frankenword).

But -tastic, -normous, and -tabulous, as well as -gasm, -geddon, -pocalyse, -tastrophe, and -splosion (and - who can forget - -licious, -palooza, and -capades) have exceeded their original remit and, like -sauce, have become very productive. Hacksawed off their original words, these new suffixes inherit the sense of "big, excellent, important" from their original words, but leave behind seriousness, becoming just general humorous intensifiers. Armageddon? Reliably serious. Picklegeddon? Cookiegeddon? Hamstergeddon? Not so much.

Like -sauce, these suffixes cleverly manage to express both the appreciation of something's superlativeness and poke fun at it at the same time. Sure, last night's episode of "Gossip Girl" was totally awesomesauce (for example) . . . but using awesomesauce to describe it heads off any criticism about being so excited about it. You're excited, but you also realize the essential absurdity of being so excited.

Calling something rant-tastic, man-tabulous, hell-normous (or my new favorite, huge-o-normous) gives your utterance heft without weight; you get the pleasure of being polysyllabic without the cognitive overhead of a "fifty-cent word." You can have your sesquipedalian cake and eat it too!

These additions also give you license for what would otherwise be hyperbole. Saying someone's bad wig was "an atrocity"? Overkill. Calling it "atrocity-licious," though, hits nearer the mark, and is so patently ridiculous and over-the-top that only the most obtuse reader would complain that you were watering down the word atrocity.

This kind of suffixing allows writers to make words that are noticeably slangy and informal, but that don't presuppose any insider knowledge on the part of the reader. (It's safer in other ways, too: there's nothing more painful than the misuse by an outsider of an insider slang word, but it's hard to mess up suffixing.) In fact, in his new book "Slang" (just out from Oxford University Press - full disclosure, I was the acquiring editor for this title, and proud of it, too), slang expert Michael Adams calls this kind of jubilant suffixing "unorthodox lexifabricology," and asserts that such suffixing itself is a kind of slang: a slang in which each individual word is less important than the slang process as a whole. Want to make a slangy word? Just add -normous.

Mark Peters, of the blog Wordlustitude (wordlust.blogspot.com, which tracks hundreds of examples of new and weird one-off words, some freakitudinous in their meanings, others more euphemtastic), thinks that people suffix because they can - because it's fun. "Why settle for awesome when awesomesauce is available? Such wordplay is enjoyable, friend-impressing, curmudgeon-annoying, and free of charge - and that's so helpful in these days of enormo-econo-geddon-ness, which sounds like trouble but is so much more fun to say."

These words are markers of cool, according to Grant Barrett, who is a cohost of the radio program "A Way With Words," editor of the online dictionary doubletongued.org, and a colleague of mine at Wordnik, a new online dictionary. "Those suffixes aren't throwaways. Think of them like symbols. A biohazard sign on a hospital door is like Standard English. One of these words is like a biohazard sign on a lunchbox."

You'll see these words mainly online, in blogs, journals, and comments, because, online, where all you have are your words (and possibly, a flashing, animated, 100x100 icon), novelty, playfulness, and variation count for more. They're how you differentiate yourself, through cleverness, rather than volume. And when you're writing about your otherwise mundane day (on what have sometimes been called "cheese sandwich blogs," as in, "Well, today I had a cheese sandwich") you need the rhetorical punch these words provide. Had bacon for breakfast? It gave you a bacongasm! Pasta for lunch? No, it was a pastasplosion! Your favorite show didn't record? A TiVotastrophe!

Although part of the appeal of these words is that they sound irreverent, bloggy, and young (even -tastic, which has been in use since at least 1939, still sounds newly hatched) they're becoming more mainstream: "fate-tastic" recently showed up in the Chicago Sun-Times (albeit in the sports section), and no less an authority than New Scientist recently reported on the coming bananapocalypse (due to the vulnerability of the modern banana cultivar to disease). Even -sauce might be on the verge of hitting the bigg(er) time: Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the Atlantic Online, recently titled a post "Awesomesauce: Spiderman vs. The Machines."

Once you start to pepper your writing with these words, you may find it hard to stop. But don't think you need to hold yourself back: we may be in the middle of a suffixsplosion, but it certainly isn't a wordtastrophe.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer (dictionaryevangelist.com) and blogger (dressaday.com).