When good words turn bad
What do the words politicaster, mongrel, and braggart have in common? They end with a pejorative suffix, a few final letters that change a neutral or positive word into a negative one.
What do the words politicaster, mongrel, and braggart have in common? They end with a pejorative suffix, a few final letters that change a neutral or positive word into a negative one. Some languages are full of these suffixes. In Ojibwe you can add a pejorative suffix to almost any noun. “Shoe” (mkizin) can become “no good shoe” (mkiznenzhish), indicating strong negative feelings toward the shoe. An Ojibwe-speaker can say “no good blueberry,” “no good wife,” “no good anything.”
In English, we have only a few of these suffixes and they are currently not much used, but in the past they gave rise to quite a few interesting terms.
The most thoroughly pejorative of these suffixes is -aster. It expresses incomplete resemblance to something, so it means “not quite a __” or, “a petty, bad __.” A politicaster is thus an inadequate or contemptible politician; a medicaster is a quack; a criticaster is a petty or inferior critic. But -aster words have never been particularly common, with the exception of poetaster, an inferior poet.
The suffix -rel is occasionally diminutive, indicating something young or small. Thus a pickerel is a species of small pike. But in most -rel words, the suffix has a derogatory implication. Mongrel is from mung or mang, words for mixtures in the Middle Ages, plus -rel, meaning “a mixed breed, a cross.”
It can refer to a dog but is generally disparaging when used about anything else – a mongrel policy, a mongrel wine – and offensive when used of people. Doggerel is bad writing, or comic verse. Wastrels are spendthrifts.
Similar to -rel is -ling in that it is sometimes diminutive and sometimes deprecatory. Goslings and ducklings are baby birds, but a groundling is an uncritical or unrefined person (too poor to pay for a seat in Renaissance theaters) and a changeling is a child exchanged by fairies, or any kind of replacement of inferior value.
In the past 30 years or so, English has been evolving a new example. The pejorative suffix -tard denigrates a person who has a certain quality or believes a thing that the speaker deplores. It derives directly from retard, a word we increasingly condemn as a slur. Glutard, then, is a disparaging term for a person who doesn’t eat gluten, lactard for someone who can’t tolerate lactose, and libtard for a liberal.
One pejorative suffix made recent headlines when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called President Trump a “dotard,” sending many Americans to their dictionaries. Though it looks like another -tard word, it actually comes from a distantly related suffix, -ard, which also gave us sluggard, drunkard, and laggard.
The insult did nothing to prevent the Trump-Kim summit, but Mr. Kim’s use of the unusual word will probably guarantee this pejorative suffix a place in history.