Do you know what “tmesis” is? I know what it is as I use quite frequently, but I surely did not know the proper name for it. Tmesis “refers to the slicing of a word or sometimes a phrase to insert something between the parts.” Tmesis is a rather uncommon literary device. Here is an example that you might be familiar with: “un-effing-believable.” According to Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage (New York, Atheneum, 1966), tmesis is “usually either a humorous device or perhaps a gesture by the unlettered of their disrespect for the long word.” I think in modern times, tmesis is used more for emphasis, but what do I know as I might be considered “unlettered.”
An example from Bernstein from literature is from Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis: “He got the formula off a barman in Marrakesh or some-bloody-where.” An example from Wikipedia is “abso-bloody-lutely.” The site also expounds on how tmesis is sometimes called tumbarumba, this being due to the name of a town in New South Wales, or because of the poem “The Integrated Adjective,” also known as “Tumba Bloody Rumba” by John O’Grady, written in 1959. Here is the poem:
The Integrated Adjective
John O’Grady

I was down the Riverina, knockin’ ’round the towns a bit,
And occasionally resting with a schooner in me mitt,
And on one of these occasions, when the bar was pretty full
And the local blokes were arguin’ assorted kind of bull,
I heard a conversation, most peculiar in its way.
It’s only in Australia you would hear a joker say:
“Howya bloody been, ya drongo, haven’t seen ya fer a week,
And yer mate was lookin’ for ya when ya come in from the creek.
‘E was lookin’ up at Ryan’s, and around at bloody Joe’s,
And even at the Royal, where ‘e bloody NEVER goes”.
And the other bloke says “Seen ‘im? Owed ‘im half a bloody quid.
Forgot to give it back to him, but now I bloody did –
Could’ve used the thing me bloody self. Been off the bloody booze,
Up at Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin’ kanga-bloody-roos.”
Now the bar was pretty quiet, and everybody heard
The peculiar integration of this adjectival word,
But no-one there was laughing, and me – I wasn’t game,
So I just sits back and lets them think I spoke the bloody same.
Then someone else was interested to know just what he got,
How many kanga-bloody-roos he went and bloody shot,
And the shooting bloke says “Things are crook –
the drought’s too bloody tough.
I got forty-two by seven, and that’s good e-bloody-nough.”
And, as this polite rejoinder seemed to satisfy the mob,
Everyone stopped listening and got on with the job,
Which was drinkin’ beer, and arguin’, and talkin’ of the heat,
Of boggin’ in the bitumen in the middle of the street,
But as for me, I’m here to say the interesting piece of news
Was Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin’ kanga-bloody-roos.
Click HERE to see a video of Australian actor Jack Thompson reading the poem.
Ok, the next time you hear a word inserted into another word, you will know the proper term for the usage.

  2 comments for “Tmesis

  1. April 23, 2014 at 6:22 PM

    No, I didn’t know, Denise. Thank you for this. By the way, I like your example above … un-effing-believable. I have seen it used, maybe even used it, but had no idea it was a literary device.
    O’Grady’s piece is great – I’m saving it to go over it again when I have more time. Thanks for this post, abso-amazin’-lutely well done.

  2. April 23, 2014 at 6:55 PM

    Thank you, Silvia. That book, The Careful Writer, is old, but has a lot of good info in it . . . I found it on the bookshelves of my company’s library. We publish reports for clients and have an editor so this kind of book can come in handy here. There is an updated paperback of it that was published in 1995. I thought the poem was great, too. Well, only a few more days left in the challenge!!

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