This post about tmesis is going to be legen-wait for it-dary.
But, what the heck is tmesis? And whoop-de-freakin’-do, right? When would you even use it?
Well, Homer, Shakespeare, and Snoop Dogg have all found a way. Maybe you can too!
Let’s head right-on-in to this little linguistic doohickey, explain what it is, and give you some in-friggin’-credible ways to use it.
What Is Tmesis?
If you haven’t caught on (or you have and you’re annoyed), tmesis is sticking an extra word in the middle of a word compound, often for effect. In Australian English it’s known as “tumbarumba”.
It comes from the ancient Greek word témnein, meaning “to cut.”
You cut a word open, pop another one in, and a new compound word is born.
‘Anywhere’ becomes ‘any-old-where.’
‘The middle finger’ becomes ‘the middle-flippin’-finger’ (see how it invites wordplay?).
Now, if you want a deep dive into tmesis, or to see what linguists fight about, James Harbeck’s article on tmesis goes deeper.
Beware: literature nerds only.
Insert Thy Words Wisely Said Bill Shakespeare: What Is the Effect of Tmesis?
There are two classifications for using tmesis…
Cutting a Phrasal Verb
Examples of phrasal verbs are ‘put up with’ or ‘get over.’
Those words don’t mean much individually. But put them together, and they take on a new meaning.
While phrasal verbs are a headache for English language newbies, these words are a snap for native speakers.
We use tmesis to insert a word or two into these special verbs, such as “take the trash out.”
Adding an Infix
These are the modifiers I’ve been playing with in this article. Sorry if it feels like I’m overdoing it.
You can’t insert these modifiers anywhere, though. Rhythm and order matters.
‘In-friggin-credible’ works. ‘Incre-friggin-dible’ is clunky.
Well La-Dee-Freakin-Da: 10 Tmesis Examples to Elevate Your Writing
Here are ten of the best pop culture examples of this literary device. Some of these applications are old. Some are new.
All are awesome.
Check ‘em out.
The word ‘bloody’ may not rush us to earmuff our kids.
But when the Irish playwright and Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw used this in his 1913 play Pygmalion, it was an edgy move.
It was one that showed (not told) his audience something about his character’s place in society.
By using tmesis, he made a simple adjective unforgettable, and added depth to his character, Eliza Doolittle.
It’s no surprise that Shakespeare, master of the sonnet and soliloquy, also used tmesis.
One of the places he used it was in this Romeo and Juliet line:
“This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.”
Rather than saying Romeo “was somewhere else,” the use of tmesis gives the line a dreamy, rhythmic touch and adds a sense of longing to Juliet’s speech.
But, then again, he was Shakespeare — the master of the written word and of the human beard.
George Bernard Shaw used this phrase — which was also risque — in the same play mentioned above, Pygmalion.
‘Blooming’ is a mild expletive. It’s a euphemism for ‘bloody.’ So, this use of tmesis had a similar effect.
Not only does this inserted word help us feel who this character is, it’s a colorful and memorable phrase.
The eye rests on that line.
It sits with you.
Look at us. We’re still talking about it today.
This example comes from Chris Farley’s famous 1993 SNL sketch, Van Down by the River.
Chris Farley plays a motivational speaker named Matt Foley. He is tasked with talking to a couple of teens whose parents recently found their bag of pot.
Only Foley isn’t the most motivating motivational speaker.
When David Spades’ character tells him he wants to be a writer, Chris Farley’s brilliant “la-dee-freakin-da” is the standout moment of the whole sketch.
That extra ‘freakin’ takes Farley’s lack of motivation to a new level.
Ned Flanders is the friendliest neighbor alive on the TV show The Simpsons.
How’d the writers convey Ned Flanders’ cheesy and innocent nature?
You guessed it: tmesis.
Phrases like “well-diddly-elcome” and “hi-diddly-ho” give his character a goody-goody vibe that drives his neighbor Homer to rage.
His use of tmesis is part of what makes Ned Flanders one of the most memorable characters on the show.
This adjective is probably the most common way we hear tmesis in everyday conversation. It rolls off the tongue.
It’s so common, it’s not inconceivable that it could be seen in the dictionary someday.
‘Un-freakin-believable’ is the word that best describes your run-ins with gross stupidity, or jaw-droppingly, hard-to-believe life circumstances.
Like other uses of this technique, the modifier adds a ton of emphasis and emotion.
Julia Roberts and Richard Gere starred in Pretty Woman, a 1990 rom-com about a prostitute and a wealthy businessman.
When Julia Roberts’ character presses her friend for an example of such a relationship working out, her friend must pause to think about it for a moment.
The eventual answer of “Cinda-f#&!&n-rella” provides the perfect cinematic punchline to that buildup.
Tmesis often leans on cursing or vulgarity to hype up an emotion.
The strength of using curse words is that they can instantly turn regular words into power words.
John Wayne was a famous actor, mostly known for his no-nonsense cowboy roles.
So, it’s easy to picture him saying the quote, “It’s getting to be ri-gosh-darn-diculous.”
Well, that’s the censored version. You can imagine how he really said it.
But each stressed syllable inserted into the middle of ‘ridiculous’ carries layers of further disgust.
It tells you exactly what his character is thinking.
When you have a nineteen-minute song with no lyrics, the title of the song has more heavy lifting to do than normal.
That’s why the band Soft Machine used tmesis in their song title in 1970.
In this sprawling jam, they merge jazz and rock in an epic instrumental.
“Out-bloody-rageous” emphasizes the epic nature of this song while giving it a playful touch.
10. San Fran-foggy-cisco
San Fran, The City by the Bay, is known for its Golden Gate Bridge draped in daily fog through the summer months.
Fog is part of the city’s identity, and this use of tmesis embeds that fact right in the name.
It simultaneously gives feelings of the regretful weather and the cozy personality San Francisco is known for.
Tmesis is Something to Remember
There’s one thread to all of these examples of tmesis: they’re memorable.
The effect may be to add comedy, or vulgarity (same thing, right?).
It may reveal more information about a character or work of art.
It may just sound really cool.
Regardless, tmesis always stands out. It’s something we remember.
Now that you know what it is, and how to use it, apply it to your writing.
Just think: there’s a new word around the corner.
It’s going to be legen-wait for it-dary.