The diminutive suffix “-ish” to denote approximation is just plain lovely. Its attachment to time, as in “How about if we meet 4:00ish?”, was in use as early as 1916.

Apparently it started in Middle English to describe people’s ethnic origins: Spanish, Irish, Jewish. It moved from there to mean “like” or “characteristic of,” as in devilish or boyish, boorish or foolish or shrewish. As early as the 14th century it was used to soften the precision of color names, when the color in question was hard to describe: It was a greenish blueor “It had a reddish hue.” From there it came to mean “tending to be” or “verging on being,” as in a knavish look. Hence its broader use as an approximation.

I love the practice of using “-ish” as a standalone word. “How was the opera?” “Good. Ish.”

“Are you hungry?” “Ish.”

“Would you say she’s thirtyish?” “I’d say, heavy on the ish.”

An interesting modern usage, which I didn’t even know about (shows you what a dinosaur I am), is the use of ish as a circumlocution for “shit,” or rather “shi . . .”, derived from reversing those letters. “Can you believe that ish?” It comes from the censored radio edit versions of popular songs, using something called “reverse looping,” which takes audio portions and reverses them so the word is no longer vulgar. Kuff!

It should be noted that the Big Band era comedian and cornet player, Ish Kabibble (born in Pennsylvania as Merwyn Bogue, which I think is even funnier), has nothing to do with approximation. He was all kabibble. The predominant explanation when the phrase first appeared was that “Isch ga-bibble” was Yiddish for “I should worry?” or “What, me worry?”—which is of course where Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman got it. Except that it’s not Yiddish at all. At best you might call it Yiddish-ish.

Which brings me to the reason I wanted to create this post in the first place. “Selfish” originally meant “tending toward self,” that is, tending to have one’s one self-interest as the standard for making decisions.” Most altruistically minded folk would say that selfishness is a bad thing. A recent book with an intriguing title, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, says that today’s young people take it for granted that the self comes first:

Generation Me has never known a world that put duty before self, and believes that the needs of the individual should come first. This is not the same thing as being selfish—it is captured, instead, in the phrases we so often hear: “Be yourself,” “Believe in yourself,” “You must love yourself before you can love someone else.” These are some of our culture’s most deeply entrenched beliefs, and Generation Me has grown up hearing them whispered in our ears like the subliminally conditioned children in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Personally, I deplore the entitled, grabby, me-centered approach of people I meet every day. I think we need, as a society, to start putting others before ourselves. I think all Americans should be required to give at least two years of their lives in service to their country, but that service should include working in soup kitchens, building homes for Habitat for Humanity, teaching children (and adults) to read, serving in nursing homes and AIDS clinics, building gardens and parks for (and with) inner-city youth.

But a few of us are neurotically bent in the opposite direction. We believe in doing for others until there is nothing left for ourselves. We believe that anyone else’s priorities are more important than ours. We believe that not only is self-sacrifice good, it is the only way we will become acceptable.

Some of us (and you know who you are) need to establish a benign self-interest as our supreme good. A gentle solipsism, applied as a necessary corrective, that says it’s OK to treat oneself with kindness. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” might have as a extension, “. . . and do some of the same unto yourself.”

Is that too selfish?


Categories: Language, Social Justice, Words | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Ish

  1. I have heard, over and over, one cannot love another until one loves oneself. It seems an axiom of our culture. I am sure of it. I am also sure it is wrong.

    There must be a service to something higher, greater than ourselves. It need not be deity. The culture at large, our community, peace. Any of those do.

    The taoist idea is to give others while keeping a reserve for ourselves. Seventy percent was what I was taught. Give no more than seventy percent. It keeps enough internal reserves to retain health and regain energy. This is not, it was pointed out to me, selfish, but intended to keep us in shape to be able to go out and serve continuously as opposd to using ourselves up and being of no use to anyone, ourselves included.

    We are, in our culture, of two minds: we are selfish yet hear over and over, we should give one hundred percent. Even more – one hundred and ten percent, one hundred and fifty percent and other ma thematic impossibilities. Be selfish and give everything. We are a schizoid culture.

    What do I think of selfishness? When people talk of evil, I think of it as extreme selfishness. Me before all else. The Taoist perspective, on the other hand, looks at service toward self as a necessary part to keeping ius a working portion of nature. We can function as a part of culture, as a part of nature only when we are healthy. But, the reason to be healthy is to fulfil our function as a component, an active natural part of the Tao, of the Way.

    Taoism mixed with Buddhism and became Zen practice. It is Buddhistish and Taoish and not remotely selfish.

  2. indigo bunting

    Kuff! I’m on my way out the door and had only time to read, no time to comment and sound remotely intelligentish.

    Fascinating, wonderful read. Both you and Adam.

  3. I love “ish.” Of late, I find it being used more frequently, and it often makes me laugh. I was once described, in a complimentarish way, as being Martha Stewardish.

    As to the more serious part of the post, I find the analogy of the oxygen mask a good guide to balance between self interest and generosity. I’m referring to the safety instructions in airplanes, which tell you to place the mask on yourself before assisting others….

  4. V.E.G.

    Merwyn Alton Bogue is related to a woman from Colorado who died very unexpectedly. This woman’s mother’s maiden name is Bogue and they are extremely distant cousins of each other!

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