Understanding Splinter Words in English Grammar

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In the branch of linguistics known as morphology, a splinter is defined as a fragment of a word used in the formation of new words.

Examples of splinters include -tarian and -terian (from vegetarian, as in the coinages eggitarianfisheterian, and meatatarian) and -holic (shopaholic, chocoholic, textaholic, foodaholic).

"The splinter is formally identical to a clipping, but whereas clippings function as full words, splinters do not" (Concise Encyclopedia of Semantics, 2009).

The morphological term splinter was coined by linguist J.M. Berman in "Contribution on Blending" in Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, 1961.

Examples and Observations

  • "English has lots of splinters, among them tastic, as in funktastic or fishtastic, which is used to form mostly ironic words meaning 'excellent or great in reference to X,' originally from fantastic, or licious, as in bagelicious or bootielicious, which is used to form words meaning 'appealing in reference to X,' originally from the word delicious. The difference between a splinter and a true suffix is that speakers understand splinters in relation to the original word from which the ending splits off. If these bits survive and continue to give rise to new forms, though, they might someday be real suffixes!"
    (Rochelle Lieber, Introducing Morphology, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2016)
  • "Blends, unlike regular compounds, are . . . based on analogy rather than on rules. For instance, the occurrence of the splinter -licious (from delicious) in beaulicious and bootylicious has attracted some new coinages: e.g. Girlicious ('a musical lady trio'), Kittylicious ('referring to Hello Kitty movies), and Lehrer's (2007) jocular blendalicious."
    (Elisa Mattiello, Extra-Grammatical Morphology in English: Abbreviations, Blends, Reduplicatives, and Related Phenomena. Walter de Gruyter, 2013)
  • What Happens to Splinters
    "Splinters arise through the process of blending . . .. Thus, -nomics in Thatchernomics is a splinter, recurring in Reaganomics, Rogernomics, Nixonomics, etc.
    "Splinters may have any one of three possible fates. They may disappear. I suspect that this is what has happened to -teria (a splinter from cafeteria which had a brief flourishing in words like washeteria but now seem to have become unavailable). They may become productive affixes. This appears to be what has happened with -nomics, cited above, although it is of very low productivity. They may become independent words. This is what has happened to burger, originally a reanalysis from hamburger which shows up in beefburger and cheeseburger.
    "Since splinters may turn into affixes or words, we appear to have a situation where it is not clear whether new forms using the splinter will be derivatives or compounds. The -scape which emerged from landscape might be a case in point, though the Oxford English Dictionary lists so many instances of its being used independently that there can be little doubt as to its status as a word now. On the other hand, if we believe the Oxford English Dictionary, -cade (from cavalcade into motorcade) has become an affix."
    (Laurie Bauer, "The Borderline Between Derivation and Compounding," in Morphology and Its Demarcations, ed. by Wolfgang U. Dressler. John Benjamins, 2005)
  • Splinters in Blends
    "[Blends] may be composed of two elements called splinters (ballute from balloon and parachute), or only one element is a splinter and the other element is a full word (escalift from escalator and lift, needcessity from need and necessity). . . . A special punning effect is achieved when one constituent echoes in some way the word or word-fragment it replaces, for example, foolosopher echoing philosopher, or fakesimile, echoing facsimile."
    (Pavol Štekauer, English Word-Formation: A History of Research, 1960-1995. Narr, 2000)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Splinter Words in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/splinter-definition-1692126. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Understanding Splinter Words in English Grammar. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/splinter-definition-1692126 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Splinter Words in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/splinter-definition-1692126 (accessed March 27, 2023).