Prefix

Prefix Dinner in Bethesda, MarylandYou may think this is about a linguistic nicety, the bit that comes before the main part and imparts a nice twist—something came before, or after (pre-, post-); or the word sort of applies (pseudo-); or the action is being done again (re-); and so on. No. It’s about a dinner that come before another dinner, apparently—a “prefix dinner.” Three courses for 29 bucks in Bethesda, Maryland—who could possibly have room for the dinner itself?

Before I go off on the sorry state of the mother tongue in 2012, I am tackled by the obvious fact that … prix fixe ain’t even English.

Granted. But is that an excuse? Did the phrase “prefix dinner” actually make sense to both the restaurant manager and the sign maker? (Then again, sign makers seem to have abdicated all oversight, having drunk the bromide that “the customer knows best,” God save us all.) Yes, it sounds right. But the whole point of English is that hearing is deceiving. We have appropriated bits of every language on the planet, so that our vocabulary is the hugest by far. But how many of us know how to handle it? There’s the rub.

And here’s the agenbite of inwit for yours truly: both the restaurant manager and the sign maker knew what they were talking about, and perhaps 99% of the people viewing the sign understood it without a snicker (“Hm, so that’s how that’s spelled …” some of them probably thought). Yours truly knows what a prefix is. Well, la-dee-dah.

Addendum 2012.03.26: A Google search on “prefix dinner” produces an alarming number of hits (including the charming “Pre Fixe”), all over the map. As of this date, it has not infiltrated Webster’s online. Here’s the stupid thing: they could just say “fixed-price dinner” (I would even hold my tongue if they left off the hyphen). Same number of syllables. I can hear the objection now: the consonantal collision between “fixed” and “price” (the sound “kstpr”). In practice, the phrase would invariably (and, I have to concede, naturally) devolve to “fix price” (because of our lazy ol’ American way o’ talkin’). Which is almost worse than “prefix.” Almost.

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One Comment

  1. WordGuy
    Posted March 26, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    The lovely thing about prefix is that it contains one (which cannot be said of its sibling suffix). Is there a term for this sort of linguistic involution?

    There is a term for something that irritates me more than “prefix dinner”: nested acronyms (like AIM = AOL Instant Messenger = America On Line Instant Messenger). Macronym. Almost gives it legitimacy, having a name like that. Apparently this shortening technique is widely used among techies, and there it should stay.

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  • Proverbs for Paranoids, 3: If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.
    Gravity’s Rainbow

    ‘Is it about a bicycle?’ he asked.
    The Third Policeman