ish and moreish

Do we have our first contender in the soon-to-be-annual SbaCL Word of the Year awards? The two main WotY categories are:
  • a heretofore BrE word that's found success in AmE
  • a heretofore AmE word that's found success in BrE
In the first of those categories, we seem to have ish. Peter in the UK wrote to ask about the suffix -ish some months ago:
Do Americans use the informal suffix "ish" to indicate vagueness.? "She was wearing a yellowish dress":"He was tallish" etc.. We also use it with time e.g. "What time shall we call round?" "Oh,make it around eightish". I have even heard a double "ish" to indicate even greater flexibility "Oh make it eightishish".
To which I privately replied:
Yes, -ish is used in AmE too [...] What is British is the use of ish as a word.
For example, a Scottish blogger writes that s/he's 'temporarily working, ish'--meaning that s/he's kind of working or working a bit. When it's used in this way, it serves as an adverb--usually modifying an entire sentence/proposition. Ish is also a useful answer to questions, as in the following OED example (draft entry, 2003) from a Northern Irish writer:
1995 C. BATEMAN Cycle of Violence vi. 94 ‘Trust Davie Morrow.’ ‘You know him?’ ‘Ish. He's a regular across the road.’
So there it's modifying the (un-uttered) proposition 'I know him'.

Of the OED examples so far, the first (1986) is English (well, it's the Sunday Times--I don't know who the author was), the second (1990) I can't tell (does anyone know Petronella Pulsford?), the next two are Irish (North and South). (Note that just because its first example is from an English --or at least national UK-- source doesn't mean that it didn't start out in Ireland...the OED has to rely on printed sources, and it would have existed in speech for a while before print.) In 2002, we get to one in an American publication, but it's spoken by someone in London, and the apparent foreignness of the expression is clear from the fact that the NYT has to explain it:
2002 N.Y. Times (National ed.) 5 Sept. D8/5 Mr. Langmead, speaking by telephone from London, hesitated. ‘Ish,’ he said, employing the international shorthand for slight hedge.
But today I was reading Mr. Verb's post on degrammaticali{s/z}ation (i.e. affixes become independent words) and found that his (an American's) primary example was ish, indicating that it must have more currency in the US now. I certainly hadn't experienced it before I moved to the UK in 2000. Is it popular enough to qualify as BrE-to-AmE Word of the Year? You will have to be the judge of that. I'll formally open nominations in December.

But as long as we're on ish, a BrE word that really fills a gap for me is moreish (sometimes more-ish) as in These chocolate biscuits are really moreish--i.e., they make you want to eat more of them. Here's a real example from a review of Tia Maria creme liqueur in Scotland on Sunday:
Tia Maria has blended a winner here. It is a moreish mix of Jamaican coffee, rum and cream that slides down so easily it should be served in an iced glass - pint-sized.
As my mother likes to say: "'To each his own', said the old woman as she kissed the cow."

For a more amusing example, watch this bit of Peep Show. (And if you don't know what Blue Peter is, see here.)


  1. I'm reminded of one Britishism I used to use in my earliest days in the which has not yet found its way into the AmE lexicon. It raised some eyebrows, so I quickly dropped it. It was: "I'm feeling a bit peckish."

  2. Americans shall be permitted to use the word moreish provided they promise not to start spelling it morish.

  3. "The Anerican Mercury" vol 64, Jan-June, 1947, p. 184 contains the following:
    'The British frequently add "ish" to many words as in "Come at five-ish" or "The dinner was good-ish." They even say "The movie was ish."'

    I don't believe Brits in 1947 said "the movie was" anything. Still, it's an antedating if OED wants one. Thanks to Google books.

  4. I believe 'peckish' has made it into the US lexicon, in fact probably more than ten years ago.

    There was a haloween episode of the Simpsons very early on, in which the whole town was turned into zombies. The family were trying to escape when Flanders (as a zombie) interrupts with:
    Hey Simpson, I'm feeling a little peckish, mind if I chew your ear?

    I can't recall exactly how long ago this was though.

    For the record, I (an Australian) use -ish frequently, but never as a free morpheme. In that '95 example from the OED, I get the intuition that Australians would say 'sort of'. On the broader grammaticalisation debate, I think that unidirectionality is the norm. De-grammaticalisation is possible through conscious manipulation, but doesn't ordinarily occur.

  5. Great antedating, Max!

    Peckish in AmE has meant 'irritable', but I don't think it's used to mean that very often these days. The BrE meaning 'a bit hungry' has made it over to AmE.

  6. "Ish" is used in some parts of the U.S. (mostly midwest?) as a variant of "ick." As in, "Ew, ish!" So the use of "ish" being discussed here may not catch on.

  7. Yes, not "movie". To me "picture"; to my parents "flick".

  8. There's something else that's odd about that quotation. It's using ish as an adjective, but all the OED examples are adverbial.

  9. Bwa-ha! Go check out the British English Quiz Question over on Language Log:

  10. I'm reminded of a wonderful wall clock I once saw in a friend's home in San Francisco. Instead of numbers, the dial read "One-ish, two-ish, three-ish, four-ish..."

    Perfect for procrastinators.

    Alas, I've never seen another clock like it.

  11. Is there a collector who can go into his archives and tell us how long Mad magazine has suffixed its price with cheap (ish)?

  12. Mad's ish is still the suffix (that hooks onto adjectives), rather than the adverb, though. So not very enlightening from the 'when did Americans get the word ish perspective.

  13. Re: More-ish. Used in Single and Single, John Le Carre, and I had no idea what it meant. Only picked up on it hearing a recording of the book on the tape, thought the character was saying "Moorish," until I went back and checked.

    In the intros to Mythbusters, the hosts tell us, "We have years of experience that keep us safe." To which I always add "-Ish." I thought I was coining. Guess not.


  14. zhoen, when I first saw the episode of Peep Show that the post reference, I thought Super Hans was saying his crack was "Moorish" as well. Didn't quite make the sense it now makes.

  15. Thanks for posting about this! I've been researching ish's degrammaticalization, myself, although I haven't looked at regional distribution. There's a thread on alt.usage.english from 2006 that discusses that, although it doesn't have much more than individuals' awareness of it:

    The OED's 2002 citation may be the earliest evidence of ish being used independently in American English, but I'm fairly sure that I (an AmE speaker) was using it at least a decade before that. When I saw the explanation, "the international shorthand for slight hedge," I had thought it was due to the author's expectations about ish's register, rather than its regional use.

    That early citation for adjectival ish is very interesting. Almost all of the examples I've collected of ish used independently have been adverbial, which makes sense since the affix functions like a bound adverb. However, I have seen about a dozen recent examples of ish used as an adjective.

    (1) It seems like they're all turning out to be so mediocre and just... Ish.
    (2) Felt a little -ish today; not really sure why.

    I had no idea the adjectival use was so old, though.

  16. Some of the Americans I talk to spontaneously use the word "wanker" nowadays. I think Austin Powers is to blame. I am curious whether the term has actually caught on.

    My Michigander grandparents used peckish in the sense of hungry when I was a child in the 60s and 70s.

  17. Wanker was last year's WotY. Click on the WotY tag to be taken to the discussion.

  18. Thank you for an explanation of moreish, a word I had never heard before. I am Americanizing recipes from a British cookbook and a headnote said that the "dish is very moreish".

    FWIW, as a native AmE speaker, I have never heard "ish" used as a separate word, but my teenager attaches it to any- and everything ("How was school?" I ask. "School-ish," he answers.)

  19. Re: Peckish
    In an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, excellent cultural barometer that it is, there is the following exchange:
    Giles: I'm rather peckish
    Anya: That's English for hungry
    Character whose name I forget: Here I thought 'hungry' was English for hungry.

  20. Re: the clock.

    My grandma has/had a similar clock (oneish, twoish etc.), over here in the UK. I'll be checking on Monday to see if it's still there!

    As a BrE speaker, I have never EVER used the word 'moreish'. Guess it depends on your background. Odd, but to me it seemed too American to use.

  21. Imprecise quote: someone asked Dr Jonathan Miller, religiously-agnostic physician and polymath, whether he felt that he was a Jew. He replied: "Well, Jew-ish."

  22. I'm so glad I found this post! I'm an Anglophile American (my grandparents were born in Surrey), and the first time I ever heard the word "moreish" was recently when Richard E. Grant came out with his own line of fragrance, called "Jack", which he described as "lickably moreish". Of course I understood immediately what he meant, but I'd never heard "moreish" before. Then today, a South African blogger friend of mine used the word in a post she wrote about chocolate. Since Richard E. Grant is from South Africa as well, I wondered if "moreish" was a S.A. word or a Brit English word.

    I'm happy to have found this post for more information on this word! Cheers.

  23. I'm a high school teacher in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. I love this blog; it's my new favorite way to procrastinate.

    My students use "ish" in conversation as a substitute for "shit" when they are concerned about getting in trouble for swearing. For example, "I'm sick of your ish!"

    1. Diane,
      that's really interesting. I'm from Atlanta and live in France. In French there is a kind of slang called verlan, which is formed by reversing syllables (l'envers, meaning reversed, becomes verlan). So, ish is probably what would result from the application of verlan rules to the word shit.

  24. Susan Dennis

    An English equivalent of verlan is called Pig Latin. (I think there are other names.) Your students' grandparents may have enjoyed Ollie Shepard's 1949 Shepard Blues (Pig Latin Blues)The lyrics began:

    Oomanway, oomanway, ooomanway, uoway urshay essay oodgay ootay eemay

    (Woman woman woman, you sure is good to me)

    The Pig Latin for shit would be itshay— which may be the origin of your students' word.

  25. I'm so surprised that Mantolwen has never come across "moreish". As a Brit, I hear it commonly about food and drink, usually in the context of something which is indulgent: where another slice, or portion, or glass should really be resisted. Usually it is used in a conspiritorial way, even flirtatious.

  26. Petronella Pulsford was Oxford's very own Brigitte Bardot in 1966. I never knew her but I moved into a room she had recently vacated on Plantation Rd. For a couple of weeks a strange man would come to my window to expose himself.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)