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3 Facts About English’s Most Adorable Suffix

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Is there any suffix more adorable than the lovely little –ling? It gives us yearlings and starlings, downy ducklings and goslings, affectionate darlings and siblings, and comforting tender dumplings. But –ling hasn’t always been so little and cute. It used to be far more productive than it is now, and its connotations weren’t always adorable.

1. JUST A GENERAL NOUN-MAKER

In Old English, when a –ling attached to another word X, it had the abstract meaning “something that has to do with X.” An earthling, for example, was a ploughman or someone who worked the earth (the science fiction meaning came much later). A farthing (feorðling in Old English) was something that was a fourth of something else. A sibling was someone who was a sib—an old word for blood relative. A youngling was a young person, but an even better word for that was frumberdling, or “first-beard-ling,” a teenager just getting some peach fuzz.

2. SMALL BUT NOT CUTE

In Middle English, –ling continued to be used as a general noun-maker, but it became increasingly associated with smallness as it came to be attached to things having to do with babies (suckling, nurseling, weanling, foundling, duckling, gosling, toadling). While some of these things were indeed adorable, the most productive use of the suffix was to show disdain. A worldling was someone too occupied with wordly, material matters. To speak of humans as deathlings was a way to bring them down a peg by emphasizing their mortality. Then there were the wagelings, hirelings, underlings, weaklings, softlings, and even lukewarmlings (those lacking in zest). To call someone a wealthling or a richling conveyed a contemptuous attitude not covered by “wealthy” or “rich.” Pretentions of all sorts were skewered with a –ling. There were witlings, wiselings, saintlings, princelings, popelings, poetlings, authorlings, and criticlings. When you called a monk with a shaved head a shaveling, you weren’t being nice.

3. JUST LITTLE

The –ling suffix was especially productive in the 1800s when all sorts of baby animals got playfully –linged (waspling, viperling, storkling, spiderling, sharkling, oysterling, mouseling). It could also imply the smallness of things without any derogatory sense (townling, letterling, balladling), and it even took on a primarily affectionate tone. Motherling was term of endearment for a time. Now –ling isn’t quite as productive anymore, but it sure is cute.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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