A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
There's Something Fishy (and Corny and Cheesy) About the "-Y" Suffix
"The immediate etymon of such adjectives cannot always be ascertained."
—from the OED's entry for suffix -y.
One of the handiest features of English is the ability to form adjectives by suffixation of the quick-and-easy phoneme [i], variously spelled with -ie, -ey, and most often simply with -y. Many of the most frequent adjectives in English are of this type, even though the word to which the suffix was originally appended may have morphed in form or meaning, or slipped into extinction. Examples include sorry, happy, ready, and tiny.
The peerless productivity of the suffix suggests that any word with familiar reference is a good candidate for adjective formation via [i] because listeners will be able to decode it effortlessly, by simply examining the base word's conceptual mappings in the lexicon and applying the ones that are germane to the usage at hand. Thus, in informal conversation, it is unremarkable to coin such nonce-words as turquoisey, checkbooky, or Starbucksy.
A peculiar feature of some -y adjectives is their ability to take on a semantic life of their own, separate from the meaning of their root and sometimes without an immediately obvious connection to it. Let's look at a few of these to examine how this semantic shift might occur. A handful of food-based adjectives fit this pattern, in which an English learner would be at a great disadvantage in thinking that the adjective's meaning might be composable from its parts.
A reassuring place to start is corny, a word whose comforting definition is "of or pertaining to corn." That definition won't take you very far for corny joke, corny dialogue, or corny gimmick, but this extended usage of corny has effectively supplanted the original meaning; unless the word following corny is another food word, the default reading is "dull and tiresome but with pretensions of significance or originality," "rustic or unsophisticated; tiresomely or ridiculously old-fashioned or sentimental; hackneyed, trite; inferior" or some other such extremely dense semantic field that dictionaries attempt to encapsulate. How did we get from corn to that?
The OED is helpful here, noting that the first semantic shift was by association of corn with farmers, rural life, and country folk. From here it's only a baby-step to value judgment, e.g. "unsophisticated," and from there, the semantic snowball is on a downhill roll. Google Ngrams can help to illustrate the pattern. Corny ale and corny reed (that is, a cornstalk), though frequent in the 19th century, are unheard of today, but from corny jokes there is no escape, despite their not partaking literally of corn in any obvious way: kernel, cob, or husk.
The operative principle here is metonymy, a productive feature of semantic shift that we've examined before in the Lounge. The extension of meaning in meaty follows an analogous pattern. In the Google Ngram graph below, for example, we see 19th century peaks for two literal uses of meaty, that is, the British spelling meaty flavour, and American meaty flavor. Starting in the early 20th century, however, and then sharply increasing in 1970s, we see the somewhat figurative expression meaty hands overtaking all of the meaty competition:
Presumably here it is the "made of flesh" aspect of meat that comes into play, and not the nutritive aspect: meaty hands are never construed as notional food items. But extension of the nutritive aspect of meat is surely responsible for such collocations as meaty proposal or meaty extras, both of which may be presumed to contain desirable proportions of something consumable, even if not by the digestive system.
Fishy has departed considerably from the meaning you would naively expect it to have ("pertaining to fish") but certain things that pertain to fish metonymically, namely, slipperiness and offensive odor, are probably responsible for the emergence of the modern meaning of fishy: "arousing feelings of doubt or suspicion," "not completely right, honest, or legal," and the like. Interestingly, the modern informal use of "fish smell" suggests a route back to the origins of the figurative use of fishy, in a sentence like "His explanation had that fish smell."
So what can be do with cheese? One of the definitions of cheesy in the OED, for example, is "abounding in cheese." This is a felicitous definition that would encourage the language learner in her ability to decode a new word on the basis of its parts in collocations such as cheesy casserole and cheesy quesadillas. But what useful purpose is served by the definition "abounding in cheese" if the word cheesy is encountered in such collocations as cheesy one-liner, cheesy infomercial, or cheesy knockoff?
Dictionaries are wise to the difficulty arising here, and so provide other definitions, such "of very poor quality," "tawdry, hackneyed, unsubtle, or excessively sentimental," or "lacking style or good quality and slightly silly". Definitions like this are considerably less useful for learners; though they may be clearly worded, they are quite divergent. If all of these meanings are possible and no clue is given as to how they might apply, it can only be the learner's guess to determine which might be operating in a given sentence. A second question not answered by dictionaries is: what has this got to do with cheese? The answer to this question may be as elusive for native speakers as for learners.
English speakers who can hark back to idyllic childhoods may remember playing "The farmer in the dell," in which, at the end, "the cheese stands alone." Could this cheese be a relative of the disparaged element of all things cheesy today? There is no clear paper trail but the Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say about cheesy:
Meaning "cheap, inferior" is attested from 1896, perhaps originally U.S. student slang, along with cheese (n.) "an ignorant, stupid person." In late 19c. British slang, cheesy was "fine, showy" (1858), probably from cheese (n.2) and some suggest the modern derogatory use is an "ironic reversal" of this. The word was in common use in medical writing in the late 19c. to describe morbid substances found in tubers, decaying flesh, etc.
The (n.2) referred to above is not the cheese we know but from Urdu chiz "a thing," from Persian chiz, from Old Persian *ciš-ciy "something." The "morbid substances" that the other OED alerts us to can be seen clearly in this Google Ngram graph, where cheesy degeneration, cheesy nodules, and cheesy material enjoyed a frequency that is fortunately no longer current.
Chances are that cheesy began to take on its negative associations through a combination of the factors noted above and eventually matured to the sharper, context-dependent meanings it has today.