Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Is Your Bestie Sciencey? Celebrating the Cutesiest Suffix

The Oxford English Dictionary's recent quarterly update added, as usual, as assortment of terms from all over the map. These included ethnomathematics, honky-tonker, honor code, exfoliator, bookaholic, over-under, wackadoo, and the even wackier wackadoodle. As a fan of spy shows Archer and The Americans, I was particularly pleased to see the addition of honey trap (and interested to learn this type of devious seduction is a tool of journalists as well as spies).

But the entry that really caught my eye was bestie (an affectionate term for a best friend) and not just because I recently wrote about selfie. Bestie is a word whose stock keeps rising: I've been seeing it all over Twitter, it's used often enough to make the OED, and it's a candidate for inclusion in the Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary. Bestie is also a reminder of the endless appeal of the -­y suffix. Whether you spell it -ie or -y, this suffix is one of the most popular and childish, which might explain the popularity. For many of us, -y suffix words are a verbal blanky.

The OED's bestie entry could already use an update, since it says the term is "originally and chiefly" a Britishism. "Originally" may be true, but I don't know about "chiefly": bestie belongs to the world now. A review of a Hannibal episode refers to FBI profiler Will Graham as Hannibal Lecter's bestie. A recent Global Times headline captures a classic dilemma: "Stuck between your bestie and boyfriend." If you like adorable videos, you'll want to check out the video that accompanied this headline: "This is what it's like when a penguin decides he's your bestie." For those who prefer hard liquor to cuddly waterfowl, you might appreciate this article on "11 Ways to Become Besties With Your Bartender." I also found many references to Taylor Swift's bestie, a title that is apparently much sought-after and, I assume, awarded in a process not unlike the selection of the Pope.

Sometimes, bestie refers to best friends other than your human BFF. For example, dogs: "No matter what they do, man's bestie is shameless." Other times the word can apply to non-carbon-based life: "Having trouble dredging up the energy to hit the gym? Well, be sure to grab your workout bestie — music, which should help motivate you!" I guess anything could be a bestie if it's the best.

Another recent OED addition — sciencey — shows the second major use of the ­y suffix: to create adjectives. Sciencey sounds like a recently coined word, but this term meaning "Of a somewhat scientific or technical nature; (also) having an interest in or aptitude for science." is actually at least as old as 1964, when this example was found: "Dean Barzum..excoriates our civilization, which in all departments, including the moribund humanities, has gone 'sciency'." Likewise, bestie is older than you'd think. This is the OED's first recorded use, from 1991: "Diana's friends often date from the days BC (Before Charles). Some are Besties — reliable pals from school."

This is a great reminder that -y suffix words may sound newfangled, but this language tendency is far from new. Michael Adams, author of Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon and Slang: The People's Poetry, has had a lot to say about the -y suffix's wide use. He notes in Slang, that, compared to other Buffyisms, "...such suffixing may be less jarring to the linguistically savvy brain because the opportunities for novel -y suffixing have developed over centuries."

In fact, the OED records hundreds of -y suffix words that are the primordial ancestors of bestie and sciencey. Since the 1400s, hugy (as in huge) has been a word: here it is used in an ominous 1728 citation: "He has hugey Business with you." Thicky can be found as far back as 1587 and sounds downright profound in this poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins from 1868: "And light us, Lord, with Thy day-break. Beat from our brains the thicky night And fill the world up with delight." In Measure for Measure, circa 1616, Shakespeare used a word that has often been spelled skeyey and would probably be spelled sky-y today: "A breath thou art, Seruile to all the skyie-influences." I love this Yosemite Sam-style word recorded in 1859: "I avoid his verminy robes and his flowing rags."

In recent times, the -y suffix gets up to even weirder business. As I discussed on OUPblog a few years ago, the -y suffix, partly spurred by Buffy fans, has been used to create extremely odd-sounding nonce terms, including technology-y, secret identity-y, and spy-y. The craziest example I found — fittingly, from a discussion of Buffy characters — involved a suffix clusterfrak for the ages: "Since Dawn's not married, she can't be having marital sex. It's all mystery-y-ish-y. And she can imagine it's pretty, if she wants." A blog post from 2009 shows bestie can fit this formula too: "I love watching Leigh and Eden being all bestie-y." If you can imagine a -y suffix word, odds are someone else has too.

In general, -y suffix words aren't considered to have a lot of gravitas, due to the childish and/or slangy flavor of many, such as slangy, kitty, doggie, sweetie, and judgy. Much like words created with reduplication — such as mumbo-jumbo, fiddle-faddle, and hocus-pocus — it's a little hard to take -y suffix words seriously. But unlike reduplicative words, -y suffix words are used so frequently that it's a little hard to peg them as purely kid stuff. Without the -y suffix, you couldn't tell Christie it's snowy or see When Harry Met Sally. Nothing could be messy or spicy; no one could get lovey-dovey. Stephen Colbert wouldn't have truthiness.

You should appreciate the -y suffix, even if it's far from your morphological bestie.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.