March 29, 2008


We have a real cheesemonger near where we live in Edinburgh: a small shop entirely devoted to cheese, with great wheels of the stuff in the window and a huge array of cheesy comestibles on offer and a genuine cheese expert in a white coat in charge and long lines of prosperous Stockbridge residents waiting outside to get in and receive their cheese advice.

We also have a genuine fishmonger a little further down into Stockbridge village, with huge ugly monkfish looking vacantly out into the street amid fantastic piles of ice, mussels, oysters, prawns, lobsters, herring, and more other slimy denizens of the deep than I could name. And it had been my intention for a while to write a witty Language Log post about the strange fact that in contemporary English (ignoring all the obsolete formations the OED includes) the combining form -monger can only be used to form words in which the first part is one of three basic household needs (cheese, fish, and iron) or one of a longer list of unsavory and frightening abstract entities (fear, gossip, hate, rumor, scandal, war, etc.). Nothing much more. (The word whoremonger, denoting the sort of person Eliot Spitzer would contact before a trip out of town, isn't really in use any more; pimp and madam have replaced it.) The form -monger isn't productively usable any more for deriving new words: you simply can't refer to a timber store as a *woodmonger, or use *meatmonger for a butcher.

But then The Onion just stole the idea for this theme out of my head and published today a highly witty news brief about a war- and fear-mongering conference. Probably better than what I could have done. Damn The Onion. Damn them.

Now what will I do? It's Saturday morning and you're all browsing Language Log to see if I'll have some little funny piece of nonsense for you, and I don't! Maybe Mark Liberman will come up with some more graphs showing that women's brains are (thank goodness) not wired all that differently from men's, or Heidi Harley will spot something really important while watching The Simpsons, or Melvyn Quince will surface with some more of whatever the hell it is that he does... We can but hope.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 29, 2008 10:55 AM