Ad and marketing creatives

The "Ish" List: One Suffix to Rule Them All (Sort of)

When the ABC-TV sitcom "Black-ish" debuted in September, it joined a growing set of titles and brands built on the odd little ish suffix. There's the punny Chairish, for example, an online seller of used and vintage furniture. London-based Brandish covers style, technology, and music "for the discerning gentleman." In my California hometown, Oaklandish sells T-shirts and sweatshirts with Oakland logos and mottos. Next door in Berkeley, an independent bookseller called Bookish opened its doors this summer. And an Indian industrial designer created the Ish Watch, which "celebrates local tardiness via a design you will love in seconds."

"When's the meeting?" "Around 12ish."

What I find fascinating about all these names isn't their similarity but their differences. In English, ish is a flexible suffix that can signify belonging, indicate approximation, suggest "in the nature of," or reveal a word's history as a French verb. Increasingly, ish can also stand alone — either as an abbreviation (for "issue," as in magazine issue) or as shorthand for "more or less" (as with the Ish Watch and with a children's book called simply Ish, in which the main character creates drawings that are "vase-ish" and "tree-ish").

Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist and editor of Slate's Lexicon Valley blog, observes: "For centuries now, -ish has been promiscuous in English, attaching to a wide variety of words and even phrases." McCulloch's focus is on the "approximately" meaning of ish, and its evolution into an independent word. But there's a lot more to ish than "sort of" and "more or less." Here's a brand-by-brand rundown of the ish spectrum.

Black-ish: The TV show's title is meant to convey the plight of the family at its center: affluent African-Americans living in a mostly white Los Angeles neighborhood. "I need my family to be black, not black-ish!" yells the father, played by Anthony Anderson, in the pilot. According to the OED, color names were the first adjectives to take the ish suffix to produce the sense of "approximate"; "blueish" came first, around 1400, and "blackish" appeared around 1500.

Bookish: This word has meant "literary" or "enthusiastic about reading" since the mid-16th century. When attached to a noun, ish gives the sense of belonging to that thing or person, or having its nature or character. Many noun + ish blends express disparagement: consider childish, sluggish, shrewish, foolish, selfish, and many others. Other times, as with bookish (or feverish or freakish), the sense is neutral. In addition to the Berkeley bookstore, there's an ebook reader called, which uses the Saint Helena country-code domain extension .sh.

Brandish: The verb brandish — meaning to flourish or wave about — belongs to a category of words that came into English from French verbs ending in -ir: French brandir conjugates with words beginning with brandiss-. (Other French-derived verbs in this category include flourish, languish, nourish, and accomplish.) But has a second meaning, brand-ish, which could mean "having the qualities of a brand" or "approximately like a brand."

Chairish: Another double-meaning ish. It's a homophone of the verb cherish (to hold dear) and an invented adjective meaning "somewhat like a chair." The chair/heart logo expresses both meanings.

Ish: The Ish watch reflects a century-old pattern of adding ish to times of day to convey "round about"; the OED's earliest citation, dated 1916, is for "elevenish." As an independent word, ish is considerably more youthful — and unusual. In her Lexicon Valley post on ish, published in June 2014, Gretchen McCulloch marvels at this fragmentary word:

[W]hile it's quite common for new words to be formed by adding prefixes or suffixes (editorialize from editor, anti-nuclear from nuclear), or even by re-casting a portion of a word that hadn't before been thought of as an affix (snowmageddon based on armageddon, chocoholic based on alcoholic), it's exceedingly uncommon to form a new word by keeping the suffix and discarding the rest. But that's exactly what ish did[.]

The detached suffix first appeared in 1986, in a theater review published in the Sunday Times of England, and didn't cross over to the U.S. until 2002 — and then only in a quotation from a British editor who hesitated before replying to a reporter's question. (The New York Times qualified this "ish" by calling it "the international shorthand for a slight hedge.") The following year, ish received its first entry in Urban Dictionary. (I am obliged to insert here that ish has a separate, scatological meaning that is equally well documented in Urban Dictionary. Go look for yourself if you're interested.) The "approximate" meaning of ish has even spawned an adverbial form, ish-ly. Here's a blurb for the children's book Ish, by Peter A. Reynolds: "A creative spirit learns that thinking 'ish-ly' is far more wonderful than 'getting it right' in this gentle new fable from the creator of the award-winning picture book THE DOT."

Oaklandish: Terms like British, Danish, and Swedish are classified as gentile adjectives. (In grammar, gentile — from a Latin source meaning "of the same clan" — means "expressing national or local origins.") That's one way we're meant to interpret Oaklandish: belonging to the Oakland clan, or speaking the Oakland language. But the name is also a pun on another ish word, outlandish, whose original meaning, in Old English, was "from another country" and which since the late 1500s has meant "bizarre, unfamiliar." Both senses are appropriate for this cheeky local brand.

One of the most interesting of the recent ish coinages is not a brand but a descriptor of brands.  Anonymish first popped up in early 2014 — its first appearance may be in the headline of a February 7 TechCrunch post about "transient" messaging apps such as Secret and Wut — and was quickly adopted by technology developers and writers. "Anonymish" describes technologies that allow users to be anonymous up to a point: upon mutual consent, two users' identities are revealed, but only to each another. But substituting ish for the similar-sounding ous, "anonymish" achieves word-play perfection. Ish.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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