September 05, 2006

The surreptitious history of -licious

The year 1992, as Arnold Zwicky observes, was a high-water mark for the jocular suffix -(V)licious. That morpholicious year brought us not only babelicious of Wayne's World fame and the hiphop group Blackalicious, but also the flexible neologism bootylicious. Snoop Dogg used it in a guest appearance on Dr. Dre's 1992 album The Chronic in a pejorative fashion to diss a fellow rapper: "Your bark was loud, but your bite wasn't vicious / And them rhymes you were kickin were quite bootylicious." Beyoncé Knowles and Destiny's Child would later celebrate an ameliorative interpretation of the word (more callipygian than steatopygic, let's say) with their 2001 single "Bootylicious." But Beyoncé didn't coin the term even in its positive sense (despite the claims of some silly news stories earlier this year). The Oxford English Dictionary has print citations for the 'sexually attractive' meaning of bootylicious back to 1994.

Yes, bootylicious is in the online edition of the OED now, and it has been since September 2004. (Since then, it has also entered the latest editions of the New Oxford American Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English.) Babelicious is in the OED too, with a first citation slightly predating the 1992 release of Wayne's World: it appeared in the book Wayne's World: Extreme Closeup a year before the movie came out. Both entries cross-reference another new addition to the dictionary: the combining form -(a)licious, defined as 'embodying the qualities denoted or implied by the first element to a delightful or attractive degree' (as in hunkalicious, attested from 1989). The OED takes this formation back to the '50s, but the long and largely undetected history of -(V)licious can be traced back even further than that.

As early as 1958, S.J. Perelman could write satirically in the New Yorker about a slogan-writer coming up with this bit of ad copy: "Victor Hugo—the Soup That Babies Your Palate. Appeteasing—Goodylicious." Perelman was mocking the Madison Avenue penchant for silly blends like appeteasing (appetizing + teasing) and goodylicious (goody + delicious). And ad copy is indeed where we can find earlier examples of -(V)licious as a combining form or blend component. The OED gives a 1951 cite for an ad appearing in the Ironwood (Michigan) Daily Globe: "It's the dog food that packs all the nutrition a dog needs into one dog-licious meal." (Needless to say, dog-licious here means 'delicious to a dog,' not 'delicious like a dog.') That line is from an ad for the Kasco brand of dog food, and the ever-expanding Newspaperarchive database now finds earlier examples of dog-licious in Kasco ads (two of which adorn this page) going back to 1949 in papers such as the Kingsport (Tennessee) News and the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette.

Much as fantastic began spawning other -tastic forms by first shifting one vowel to funtastic (see this post for a discussion), many of the early -licious forms weren't too far removed from delicious, involving a change of just the initial consonant. For instance, a rayon crepe "tea dress" from Mary Muffet was advertised in the Oct. 23, 1941 Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Press as tea-licious. (And later in 1963 the Los Angeles Times carried a recipe for a tea-licious, i.e., tea-flavored, pie.) An ad in the Oct. 15, 1952 Syracuse Herald-Journal trumpeted Downey's Honey Butter as bee-licious, while the Albuquerque Tribune of Feb. 24, 1955 carried a notice for sea-licious breaded shrimp from Lucky Supermarkets. All of these examples are helped along by the emphatic form of delicious with stress on the first syllable, frequently represented as dee-licious in advertising of the early to mid-20th century.

An even earlier example of -(V)licious from Newspaperarchive doesn't involve a simple consonant switch from dee-licious and also doesn't come from ad copy. The Nov. 8, 1933 Syracuse Herald features a recipe from a reader for applelicious, a dessert consisting of vanilla wafers and sliced apples. The same recipe turns up in the Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle Telegram the following year, so applelicious clearly got around.

Going back further still, the American Periodicals Series reveals a punny example of the -(V)licious formation while it was still very much in its infancy. This poor excuse for a joke appeared in the New York Observer and Chronicle of Jan. 3, 1878, in the "Odds & Ends" column:

There are beautiful warm soda springs in Colorado, and people who go bathing in them at once exclaim: "Oh! but this is soda-licious!"

So delicious, soda-licious, get it? Yep, pretty bad joke. But it must have had some staying power, because by 1911 there were drug stores in different parts of the country (Ada, Oklahoma, and Fort Wayne, Indiana, if not elsewhere) that advertised their carbonated drinks in local newspapers as soda-licious. Notably, the sodalicious blend was prominent enough to attract the attention of such word-watchers as H.L. Mencken and Eric Partridge. So perhaps this form laid the groundwork for later morpholiciousness.

Nowadays, if you want to get a sense of the productivity of -(V)licious, just head over to Mark Peters' Wordlustitude, where recent in-the-wild discoveries include kegelicious, stigmatalicious, tentaclicious, non-suckalicious, crony-licious, conjugalicious, and many more. What once was an occasional delectation is now just a bit too overkillicious.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at September 5, 2006 12:47 AM