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The Versatility of the English Lexicon

The Versatility of the English Lexicon

This post is largely based on another revised and published on 2nd October 2017 under the title “13 Questions on the English lexicon and half an answer”. The post has been updated and only one of the questions remains.

Lexical Competence and Lexis

I am very fortunate and enjoy all my classes, but I especially enjoy when it comes the time to cover the topics dealing with lexical and semantic competences.

As usual, we brainstorm, try to see the logical connection among the ideas and, above all, start asking questions to help us understand, clarify and explain the concepts we are covering. Those questions are part of the workbooks we use in the Poppies Foundation 1 to prepare the topics. I am looking forward to hearing my students’ explanations for the questions proposed.

The English lexicon: Creative, versatile, even voracious

This is how I would define the English Lexicon.

While many languages try to control the number of words coming into them from other languages or the possible internal combinations to make up new words, English has no qualms about borrowing from others and has proved particularly versatile in combining various elements within the language to make up new words, including, occasionally, foreign non-classical affixes.

Needless to say, this creativity and versatility only apply to the lexical (i.e., nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs) not the grammatical elements, of the lexicon. And yet, English often makes use of close-class group items such as prepositions, conjunctions or auxiliaries to form new elements within the open-class group, as shown through examples in our Topic 10 and in Chapter I of our book Linguistic Competence, available here and which I am currently revising.

The section dealing with suffixes is one of them:

 Two suffixes which have entered the language in the last quarter of the 20th century

If you are following the news about Boris Johnson, the current British Prime Minister, you must have heard of “Partygate” Britain. Here’s one of the many examples of this Partygate

But do you know how it originated?

The suffix -GATE:

Coined by William Saphire

As a peculiar example of linguistic creativity, this suffix was coined by the Washington Post columnist William Saphire in the early 1970’s after Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

To refer to some kind of scandal

It is often added to proper nouns to refer to some kind of scandal associated with the name, usually in the political, artistic, journalistic, academic or sports arena.

Officially recognised in 1991

It was officially recognised as a suffix in 1991 (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22464422).

One example

You will find some further examples with explanations on their meanings in the article and in the book. One of those examples is Skidgygate. Do you know what it refers to? You may be too young to know, but it is part, in a way, of British culture.

a brief sketch

And because we at POPPIES believe that we learn better when there is some fun, here is

Hope you’ve liked both the sketch and the extract. David Mitchell is a great comedian. He and Ebb were in Peep-show, a series of sketches which lots of people found really funny. I must say that I prefer “The Unbelievable Truth“: Mitchell is very witty there and so are the other participants.

The second, albeit more use-restrictive suffix

In fact, this is one, Vernon, my late husband and partner, and I first noticed back in 2013 when we were in Leicester for Roy’s graduation and then in an article in The Economist also in 2013. The suffix, however, has been around since the 1990s, albeit limited -as far as I know- to just two words.


As mentioned, we first found this word in the article “Tits, out” in The Economist published on August, 17th 2013, (see Bagehot/ Tits, out, p.27 from the paper edition): Mr Murdoch hinted in a tweet that the topless shots might be replaced by pictures of “glamorous fashionistas.

However, doing some online research we have found that the “inventor” was Stephen Fried as he confessed…on an article published in The Atlantic…on April 17th, 2013! Interesting to read his explanation of how he “invented” the word inspired by the Spanish suffix -ista in “Sandinista”. I think we can rightly claim the Spanish origin of the suffix, even though I’m willing to share a tiny portion of the honour with Italian.

And, since I am currently reading (and enjoying) “The Meaning of Everything” The story of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, you will excuse me if I delve into the second word’s origins, morphemes (both free and bound) and “curiosities”:


When Vernon and I first saw it in Leicester in July 2013 on the T-shirts worn by waiters and waitresses at a popular American Coffee bar we never go to -since we much prefer coffee houses for tea in England and Spanish bars for coffee in Spain- we thought it was a borrowing from Spanish and as such was included in our 2013 version of Linguistic Competence,  which is now under revision.

However, former student and now permanent teacher, Ana Aguilera, pointed out that it was of Italian origin. That is why I am willing to share part of the honour with Italian.

We all agree, though, that the word “barista”, found on the back of waiters and waitresses’ T-shirts in some fast-food or coffee chains is a “borrowing” from Italian, which imitates the word-formation process of bar-ista and whose meaning is clear: “bar worker”.

What I find interesting is the way the word “bar” and now “barista” has “travelled” back and forth between languages. Indeed, the word “bar” came into English through Old French. According to the 3rd Edition of the Shorter English Dictionary published in 1973, is defined, in its III.1. Law as

  • In the Inns of Court (nothing to do with inns, meaning “posadas”) “bar” was “the partition separating the seats of the benchers from the rest of the hall, to which students, after having attained certain standing, were called”. It eventually came to refer to the “whole body of lawyers, the legal profession, particularly in an Inn of Court
  • In those “ordinary inns” -e., “posadas” in Spanish- in the late 16th century, it was used to refer to the tavern, in reference to the bars of the barrier or counter over which drinks or food were served.
  • The word “bar” with the meaning of “place where drinks are sold” came into Spanish apparently in the 20th While I have found the origins of the word in the Diccionario de la Lengua Española de la Real Academia, I haven’t been able to find the date when it came into Spanish. But I have found this interesting post in Spanish, also published in 2013.

Apart from the same origin of the word to refer to two different concepts (the counter in a tavern or public house  – pub­ ) and the “body of lawyers at a court” there is a further element of interest and which has to do with the significance of stress, rhythm and intonation patterns, as we mentioned in this post:

The pronunciation of the word “barista” is just the same as the English word “barrister”, the only difference between them being the stress: /bӕ’rɪstǝ/ for the former and /’bӕrɪstǝ/ for the latter.

If you find another interesting word you would like to comment on, why not share it with us in the comments?

Apasionada de la lengua inglesa y sus múltiples matices, mi objetivo es ayudarte en la preparación de la oposición a profesores de inglés y contribuir a que la escuela pública ofrezca la enseñanza de calidad –de y en lengua inglesa– que nuestros alumnos necesitan en el s. XXI

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