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I am a trusted critic of a friend's writing. I have noticed an (admittedly obnoxious) habit they have of "creating" new words by adding the "em" prefix to nouns or adjectives, like empurpled.

For example they will say things like "The boy stared, his eyes emgoldened by sun," or "The girls walked with empowdered faces." "The emspangled sky." "His embrightened smile."

The closest I've come to finding an answer on my own is the terms "verbing." I also know "em" is frequently used as an intensifier. I've taken to calling it "emverbing" but I wonder if there isn't a real term for this particular type of move.

This is pretty specific, so my broader question would be: is there a word which describes creating a neologism by affixing a prefix to a word that doesn't typically have one. I haven't been able to find any term.

Thanks in advance.

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    A side note: “emgoldened” and “emspangled” are particularly eccentric because this prefix typically takes the form “en-“ before G or S. The form “em” is only regular before B or P (or I suppose before M, although I can’t think of any common example). – sumelic Oct 25 '18 at 4:26
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    Is the word you're looking for "derivation"? Coincidentally, see this answer I really recently posted. – Laurel Oct 25 '18 at 4:51
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    I'm not sure if embrighten counts as a neologism or not since it's in an actual dictionary, but either way, I'm using this as an excuse to say, "I am so sorry you have to deal with that." merriam-webster.com/dictionary/embrighten – Sora Tamashii Oct 25 '18 at 4:52
  • As long it is their work, and they are aware of the consequences, there is no need to feel that it is obnoxious, because they may go on from there to create something special. Or they might not, but they are friends, so enjoy! – Trevor Christopher Butcher Oct 25 '18 at 6:39
  • No need to embiggen the issue. (*em)Coined *em- words are not neologisms but poor puns or just-for-funs. Only those in the dictionary are proper words. – Kris Oct 25 '18 at 9:43
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As Laurel points out, the process of forming new words by appending prefixes and suffixes is called morphological derivation. Not an arbitrary process, it follows certain idiomatic conventions, either phonetic or semantic, that assure that a new coinage looks, tastes, and feels like English. When it doesn’t, you can term it “illegal,” “nonidiomatic,” or, if it suits you, just plain wrong.

The first criterion is whether an affix is still productive, i. e., it is still used to form new words. Pro- and anti-, for instance, are highly productive; be- as in bedraggled or bedazzled is not. I suppose ante ‘before, prior to’ might be glued onto some Latin root to come up with a new word, but chances are good no one is going to say they need to make a phonecall *antebreakfast.

You can at least assure your friend that em- is still productive in modern English. When commercial aviation became a thing in the 1920s, for instance, industry-specific terms were coined for getting on and off: thus enplane/emplane and deplane were born.

The emplane/enplane variation brings up a phonetic rule for your friend’s favorite prefix: em- is really en- assimilated to a root beginning with a labial consonant, b, p, and sometimes m. That means it can never be attached to a root beginning with a vowel or any other consonant. This eliminates such attempts as *emgolden. The rule would generate engolden:

About the same time the royal palanquin stood at the palace portal, engoldened, jewelled, and surmounted with a panache of green plumes. — Lew Wallace, The Fair God, 2018 (orig.1873), 51.

Staying with colors, empurpled already exists:

vnwares it [a knife] strooke into her snowie chest,
that litle drops empurpled her faire brest: Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen, 1590. EEOB

Today, one also encounters the word in a metaphorical sense:

Firbank's spoofing is altogether too silly, too empurpled, too doting to sustain the mood of correction essential to satire. — Robert F. Kiernan, Frivolity Unbound: Six Masters of the Camp Novel, 1990.

Purple prose is flowery, extravagant writing, which means if you use a word such as empurple, you’re more than halfway there — as in this early 20th century poem about the San Gabriel Mountains of California:

Where range upon range the Sierra lies dreaming a-swim
In the stillness of April, the warm golden splendor of light,
Enrosed and emblued and snow-summitted height after height,
Bathed in silence and color… Sunset Magazine 16/4 (Feb. 1906)

As far as I can tell, neither enrose nor emblue has an entry in any dictionary: they are nonce words created just for this poem. But because they follow the conventions of coining such words, any reader would understand them. Whether this is a literary success is up to the reader to decide.

You may have noticed these en- color words occur in quite formal registers — poetry of varied quality or a well crafted sentence in a novel — and all breathe the air of earlier centuries. Excellent writers might get away with resurrecting them or coining new ones; merely good writers might be better advised to avoid them.

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This answer is based on information I've learned from reading online sources.

There was a similar question to this not long ago about attaching the prefix "a-" to a word.

What is the grammatical name of prefixing a word by "A"

That question is more broad than yours because the prefix/morpheme 'a-' has more functions and separate origins than what you're talking about, specifically adding the prefixal morpheme of "em-" to a word.

First of all, to answer your broad question:

is there a word which describes creating a neologism by affixing a prefix to a word that doesn't typically have one.

I can't think of a term more specific than "prefixation" or "verbification".

ABOUT THE PREFIX/MORPHEME EN- / EM-

More specifically, to address your question about adding the "em-" prefix to a word, I think most people understand what this morpheme means.

em-

word-forming element meaning "put in or into, bring to a certain state," ...

usually when followed by:

labial stop (-b-, -p-, and often -m-)

and:

Also a living prefix in English used to form verbs from adjectives and nouns (embitter, embody)

Source: Online Etymology Dictionary

The prefix morphemes "en-" and "em-" are a French adoption or shift from Latin "in-" and "im-". In French this change is more consistent. However English tended to adopt both the French forms and the Latin forms (see entry for "in-). That's why even today we have "empanel/impanel", "imbed/embed" and "ensure/insure". Older spellings in English showing this include "imbalm", "impower", "imbody", and "incumber".

ON CREATING VERBS FROM NON-VERBS

The Wikipedia article on Conversion (word formation) talks about "verbification". If the Wikipedia article is accurate, then there is a distinction between "to verb" and "to verbify".

  • "To verb" means using a non-verb as a verb without changing or adding to word.
  • To "verbify" means changing a non-verb to use it as a verb with the adding an affix.

So words such as you've given seem to be cases of verbifying, not verbing. I'm not sure if this is a widely held distinction.

So the phenomenon that you're talking about seems to be "verbifying", particularly by "prefixation". However I don't know a word that covers both. Such a word would likely be the answer to your question.

Also your examples of "emverbing", "emgoldened" and "emspangled" go against the general trend of using "in-/im-/en-/em-" before certain letters, generally rules based on phonological considerations.

  • See my comment at OP. – Kris Oct 25 '18 at 9:44
  • @sumelic Yes, it seems you're right. The un- English prefix doesn't seem to care what sound follows: unbuckle, unbeatable, unbridle, unpack, unplug, unpaid. Very different prefix/morpheme. One exception I found was enplane, also spelt emplane, but they seem to be so rare it's not even worth mentioning. Thanks for the correction, and the lesson. I'll remove that final part of my answer. – Zebrafish Oct 25 '18 at 13:29
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    @Kris Are you saying we shouldn't coin new words that begin with em- ? I found that "embrittle" is relatively new, 1900 - 1905, but is found in dictionaries now (ie., "real words"). The Simpsons has had an enormous impact on our language, and is most likely the reason why "meh" is in our dictionaries. "embiggen" is actually found in official dictionaries, Collins, Merriam-Webster, Oxford Living Dictionaries. I don't see why this should be discouraged in any way. I'm sure the first people using any newly coined word were seen as silly or eccentric until it slowly became accepted. – Zebrafish Oct 25 '18 at 14:04
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    I'm not sure why the discussion of en- changing to em- before labials is restricted to stops. Although not a verb formed from a noun, emphasise exists - and ph is a fricative. As does emforth, and emvowel. I can't find any examples, but *emwiden sounds as valid as embiggen and *enwiden doesn't sound good to me. – David Robinson Oct 26 '18 at 1:00
  • @DavidRobinson: The word emphasize comes from Greek; Greek "ph" is thought to have originally been pronounced as an aspirated bilabial plosive, although it changed to a fricative fairly early on (exactly how early is disputed/unclear). Emforth doesn't seem to have the prefix em-. I have only seen emvowel as a sub-unit of the jocular word disemvowel(ed) which is clearly modeled after disembowel(ed). – sumelic Oct 26 '18 at 3:59

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