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What Is Tmesis?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated: May 17, 2024

The term "tmesis" describes the practice of dividing a word or phrase into two parts and placing another word in the middle. The term comes from a Greek root meaning "to cut," and describes the separation of the two parts of the word or phrase. In tmesis, the inserted word modifies the original, either by adding emphasis or by clarifying the phrase.

In English, one of the most common forms of tmesis involves phrasal verbs. A phrasal verb is a combination of a verb and a preposition that gives the verb an entirely new meaning: "throw" and "throw up," for instance, have completely different meanings, as do "turn" and "turn off." A word can be inserted into the middle of a phrasal verb and still allow it to retain its meaning, as in the case of "turn off." "Turn the radio off" maintains the meaning of that phrasal verb. With some phrasal verbs, this type of tmesis is optional — "turn the radio off" and "turn off the radio" mean the same thing — but in other cases it is required. For instance, "go and shut Steve up" makes sense in English, while "go and shut up Steve" has an ambiguous meaning.

Another form of English tmesis is the insertion of a modifier, called an infix, into the middle of a word. Examples of this type of usage are often expletives used to emphasize the original word or to give it comic impact. For example, in British or Australian English, "absolutely" can become "abso-bloody-lutely" if additional emphasis is required, while American uses include "guaran-damn-tee" and others less repeatable. In some cases, the exact meaning of the insertion can be unclear, as in the rustic Americanism "any-old-how." This type of tmesis can also serve to give the word a slightly absurd emphasis, as it does for a character in the American television show The Simpsons; an irritating neighbor, Ned Flanders, inserts "diddly" into words, creating compounds such as "hi-diddly-ho" or "scrum-diddly-icious."

Tmesis is a common feature in Australian English, where it is sometimes known as "tumbarumba." Tumbarumba is the name of a small town in New South Wales. The use of "tumbarumba" to describe tmesis may originate from the Australian humorist John O'Grady, who poked fun at the practice of inserting "bloody" into phrases wherever possible in his poem "The Integrated Adjective." The poem includes lines such as "I got forty-bloody-seven, an' that's good e'-bloody-nough" and ends with the line "up at Tumba-bloody-rumba, shootin' kanga-bloody-roos."

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Discussion Comments
By discographer — On Apr 19, 2014

Shakespeare was fond of tmesis, he used the literary device in some of his plays. The one that comes to mind immediately is Romeo and Juliet and the verse: "This is not Romeo, he’s some other where." Shakespeare cut the word "somewhere" and inserted "other."

By literally45 — On Apr 19, 2014

As far as I understand, tmesis in Greek was a little different. It started off as a pre-word and a word. So It was not about cutting a word or phrase and adding another in the middle. It was about two words that were later merged to be one.

Tmesis, as we know it, was first used in Latin. Words were cut into two and another word was placed right in the middle. Interestingly, this literary tool was used to create a visual, to help the reader imagine what was meant. For example, the Latin word for "surround" was cut into two and the word for "man" was placed in the middle to describe a man that was surrounded. The man is literally surrounded in this case with the word "surround." Isn't this interesting?

By SarahGen — On Apr 18, 2014

@Mor-- Other cultures also use tmesis with swear words to emphasize a dislike of something or someone. So you are not wrong, this is not specific to English or Australian English.

Although languages and their uses vary, word play exists in every language. The words and phrases change but the ideas and concepts are the same.

By irontoenail — On Apr 11, 2014

@Fa5t3r - I think if you were trying to ask someone to lock Steve in a vault, you would phrase it something like "please shut Steve up in there". If you just said "please shut Steve up" I would take that to mean you wanted me to gag him.

Poor Steve seems to have got himself into the middle of a bank heist or something.

By Fa5t3r — On Apr 10, 2014

@Mor - I don't think many Americans use the term "bloody" all that often. It's more of a Commonwealth swear word.

I actually don't know anyone who would use tmesis regularly in their everyday speech. I might use it as a joke, if I was saying something sarcastically or something, but otherwise no.

Of course, I didn't realize the term was also used when you chop phrases in half, like "shut up" and I do use it that way sometimes. It just sounds more natural to say "shut Steve up" than "shut up Steve" although I'm not sure either of them is more clear in terms of meaning.

By Mor — On Apr 10, 2014

I guess I never realized this was a part of Australian vocabulary before, at least, no more so than it is with any other culture. I thought everyone added swear words into the middle of other words when they are trying to convey that they are extra excited about something.

But maybe that's because I am used to watching Flanders on the Simpsons. I know they have managed to add other words to English (like D'oh, for example) and maybe they made me think this was normal for everyone as well.

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