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Tmesis (// or //; Ancient Greek: τμῆσις tmēsis, "a cutting" < τέμνω temnō, "I cut") is a linguistic phenomenon in which a word or phrase is separated into two parts, with other words interrupting between them.
One example would be the recurring phrase by Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, "Legen-wait for it-dary", in which the phrase "wait for it" is inserted into the word Legendary. Another example is "'Wel-diddly-elcome", a signature phrase of fictional character Ned Flanders', where a nonsense word is inserted. Note the reduplication of part of the host word (as opposed to "wel-diddly-come").
Tmesis of prefixed verbs (whereby the prefix is separated from the simple verb) was an original feature of the Ancient Greek language, common in Homer (and later poetry), but not used in Attic prose. Such separable verbs are also part of the normal grammatical usage of some modern languages, such as Dutch and German.
Tmesis in Ancient Greek is something of a misnomer, since there is not necessarily a splitting of the prefix from the verb; rather the consensus now seems to be that the separate prefix or pre-verb reflects a stage in the language where the prefix had not yet joined onto the verb. There are many examples in Homer's epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both of which preserve archaic features. One common and oft-cited example is κατὰ δάκρυα λείβων kata dakrua leibōn "shedding tears", in which the pre-verb κατά kata "down" has not yet joined the verbal participle λείβων leibōn "shedding". In later Greek, these would combine to form the compound verb καταλείβων kataleibōn "shedding (in a downwards direction)".
Tmesis is found as a poetic or rhetorical device in classical Latin poetry, such as Ovid's Metamorphoses. Words such as circumdare, to surround, are split apart with other words of the sentence in between, e.g. circum virum dant: "they surround the man". This device is used in this way to create a visual image of surrounding the man by means of the words on the line. In the work of the poet Ennius, the literal splitting of the word cerebrum creates a vivid image: saxo cere comminuit brum "he shattered his brain with a rock."
Examples of tmesis has been found in skaldic poetry. In addition to the use of kennings, skalds used tmesis to obscure the meaning of the poem. One use of tmesis was to divide the elements of personal names.
Many German verbs have a separable prefix that changes the meaning of the root verb, but that does not always remain attached to the root verb. German sentence structure normally places verbs in second position or final position. For separable prefix verbs, the prefix always appears in final position. If a particular sentence's structure places the entire verb in final position then the prefix and root verb appear together. If a sentence places the verb in second position then only the root verb will appear in second position; the separated prefix remains at the end of the sentence. For example, the separable verb anfangen ("to start") consists of the separable prefix an and the root fangen:
- Root verb in second position: Ich fange die Arbeit an. ("I start the work.")
- Root verb in final position: Morgens trinke ich Schokolade, weil ich dann die Arbeit anfange. ("In the mornings I drink hot chocolate, because afterwards I begin the work.")
However, in many other German verbs the prefix is inseparable, always staying with the root verb.
English employs a large number of phrasal verbs, consisting of a core verb and a particle which could be an adverb or a preposition; while the phrasal verb is written as two words, the two words are analyzed semantically as a unit because the meaning of the phrasal verb is often unrelated (or only loosely related) to the meaning of the core verb. For example, turn off has a meaning unrelated to turn in Turn off the television set and the light.
Many English phrasal verbs are separable, in the sense that if they are transitive then the object is placed between the core verb and the particle if the object is a pronoun (and optionally if it is a short noun phrase, but not if it is a long noun phrase as in the example above). For example:
- Turn off the light OR Turn the light off (optional tmesis)
- Turn it off (mandatory tmesis)
This intervention of the object in the middle of the phrasal verb can be viewed as a form of tmesis even though the semantic unit being separated is written as two words even when not separated.
Other tmeses in English
One context in which tmesis appears in English involves words using the possessive suffix 's, when it is applied to a noun phrase rather than to a single-word noun. For example, the man's is the possessive form of the man, which can also be expressed periphrastically as of the man. But if this noun phrase is lengthened to include the adjectival prepositional phrase in the car to modify man, the resulting construction is the man in the car's, as in the man in the car's hat (not the man's in the car hat or the man's hat in the car). This type of construction often appears in informal English, although it can be re-expressed in the more formal and periphrastic form the hat of the man in the car.
Another kind of tmesis involves the insertion of a word or phrase into another word, for added emphasis and often for humorous effect. The insertion may occur between the parts of a compound word, or between syllable boundaries (dystmesis), but always preceding a stressed syllable (e.g. one would never say, "Ab-bloody-solutely", preferring "Abso-bloody-lutely"). It is also sometimes referred to as tumbarumba, possibly due to the popularity of tmesis in Australian English dialect (Tumbarumba, New South Wales being an Australian town), or possibly due to the poem "Tumba Bloody Rumba" by John O'Grady, which includes several tmeses including "Tumba-bloody-rumba", "e-bloody-nough", and "kanga-bloody-roos".
Examples of tmesis for emphasis
English language examples of the use of tmesis for added emphasis include:
- Wh-words, words usually beginning with wh- that can be used as interrogative words, can also be used as subordinating conjunctions or relative pronouns. When they express indefiniteness using the suffix -ever they can have the intensifier so inserted between the two parts (the base word and the indefinitizer ever) to emphasize the indefiniteness: whatsoever, whosoever, whomsoever, whosesoever, wheresoever, whensoever, howsoever. Unlike the following examples, these are considered standard words in the language.
- "Ri-goddamn-diculous", as pronounced by John Wayne, drunkenly addressing a college R.O.T.C. group on the subject of patriotism, and later by Frank Vitchard (Luke Wilson) in Anchorman.
- "Unbe-fucking-lievably", said by Stephen Fry on 29 June 2011, at BorderKitchen in The Hague, as an example of tmesis. He also told the audience that tmesis is his favourite trope.
- "La-dee-freakin'-da", a variation of the above in which a less offensive infix is substituted.
- Lexical diffusion
- Portuguese personal pronouns#Syntax on future verbs
- Split infinitive
- Merriam–Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 10th edition.
- The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press (1992), p. 1044 (ISBN 0-19-214183-X)
- Cruttwell, Charles Thomas. A History of Roman Literature: From the Earliest Period to the Death of Marcus Aurelius.
- Ross, Margaret Clunies (2005). A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. pp. 109–110. ISBN 1-84384-034-0.
- Tumba Bloody Rumba
- Stephen Fry @ BorderKitchen. Photos and audio. http://hofstijl.nl/2011/06/30/stephen-fry-borderkitchen-fotos-audio/ (at 16 min. 40 sec).