When good words turn bad

What do the words politicastermongrel, 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.

Evan Vucci/AP
North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump shake hands during their first meeting at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island in Singapore on June 12, 2018.

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.

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