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Commentary: Prefixes and Suffixes

By Paula LaRocque, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

In the 1960 film, The Apartment, actor Jack Lemmon says: "That's the way it crumbles...cookie-wise!"

As you might guess, that movie pokes fun at office jargon. Lemmon plays a clerk in an insurance office who curries favor with his bosses in part by aping their language.

The movie's dialogue eagerly plays on the jargon theme. One character says: "Premium-wise and billing-wise, we are 18 percent ahead of last year, October-wise." Another says: "As far as I'm concerned you're tops. I mean, decency-wise." When one character asks if she should light candles, another responds: "It's a must! Gracious living-wise."

Even the movie's ads got into the act by announcing: "Movie-wise, there has never been anything like it laugh-wise, love-wise, or otherwise-wise!"

That was funny 45 years ago. But recently a television anchor reported that the government's "budgetwise and policywise preplanning" should be "finalized" soon. I half-expected him to conclude: And that's the way it crumbles...newswise. Or, to stick his finger down his throat and cry: Who's writing this drivel?

What is this "prefixation" and "suffixation" disease? We know it's epidemic when a news anchor can read perfectly atrocious copy with a perfectly straight face.

As we've seen, the suffixes "-ize" and "-wise" are common offenders. We've grown used to "Let's see what the picture is, weatherwise" instead of the sleeker "Let's have a look at the weather." But what about a reporter who claims to be examining "certain contemporary themes, familywise and religionwise?"

I read recently of a slain police officer who was being "funeralized" the next day. And we constantly hear the flabby and pretentious utilize instead of use.

Unnecessary suffixes damage precision and simplicity, but so do unnecessary prefixes. Take the prefix "pre-." The flight attendant's "pre-board" seems to mean to get on the plane before you get on the plane. By the same token, how can one "pre-plan" or "pre-arrange" or "pre-establish"? You must plan and arrange and establish beforehand. A word such as pre-plan means something akin to planning to plan.

And that word "prequel." "Sequel," from a Latin root meaning "to follow," was sensible. Then along came "prequel," meaning preceding in action but following in presentation. Clever but freaky.

A builder "pre-sells" units in a housing project still under construction. Yes, I understand he'll use that money to finish the project, but what's going to happen after he's pre-sold and we've pre-purchased? Isn't he really just selling, and we just buying?

We're told we're "pre-approved" for credit cards or loans - for which we must still apply and be approved. So what does "pre-approved" mean? Maybe it means only: "We have your name and address."

Is something so wrong with the concept of a used car that we must instead buy a "pre-owned" car?

My husband once found an out-of-print book I'd wanted and bought it for me. Since it was used, he warned (or should I say "pre-warned?") that the book was "pre-read."

But he was kidding.

Paula LaRocque is a former editor and writing coach for the Dallas Morning News.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.