Dear Straight Dope:
I work for a company that insists on using the term "signage" for what I believe should be called "signs." I have fun at meetings pronouncing it sig någ with hard Gs and defending myself by telling objecting brown noses to look up the etymology in the dictionary, where, of course, they can't find it because it ain't a word. D'oh! Anyway, I was wondering what makes that suffix -age propper english, as in "wreckage." I have an Oxford Companion to the English Language but can't find the answer there. Maybe I suffer from dumbage or have bad indexage.
Fred Ubinger, Palm Bay, Florida
“Signage,” whether or not you agree it deserves to be a word, has found its way into many dictionaries, such as the American Heritage Dictionary and the great Oxford English Dictionary. The OED has citations dating from 1976 onward, so it isn’t exactly new. If you want to continue to believe it “ain’t a word,” be my guest. Most dictionaries these days are descriptivist rather than prescriptivist in character, meaning that new words are added when they become reasonably common, not when dictionary editors decide the new word is “propper english,” as you put it. You are free to coin your own -age words, but they aren’t likely to make it into the dictionary unless they catch on. “Signage” has caught on to some extent because there is a shade of difference between “signage” (a collection of signs considered as a unit) and the simple plural “signs.” The former is not a word I have had the need to use before, but I might feel otherwise if I worked with collections of signs on a regular basis. It is unfortunate that “signage” is sometimes used where “signs” would work better, but mistakes like these are not signage of the end times.
Of course not all words ending in -age are collective nouns, nor do all collective nouns end in -age. Other endings that can (but don’t always) indicate collectives include -ry, as in “poetry” or “yeomanry” and -dom as in “Christendom” or “heathendom” and -ship as in “readership” or “viewership.” The same suffix -age that forms collectives can also be used to form other sorts of nouns besides collectives, such as “marriage,” “language,” “voyage,” etc. Some other words happen to end in -age but are etymologically unrelated to the suffix we are discussing, such as “average,” “cabbage,” and “cottage.” And you can rest assured that the current writer is not a collection of bibliophs.
The English suffix comes from French noun-forming suffix -age, which in turn comes from the Latin noun-forming suffix -aticum, which in turn comes from the Latin adjective-forming suffix -aticus, which in turn was originally Greek. That’s some heritage. Do you really want to know the details? Of course you do. Make yourself comfortable, chum, this may take a while.
The English spelling comes from the Old French, where, in addition to forming several different types of abstract nouns, it was used to form collective nouns. The Old French -age, as I say, was from Latin -aticum. The two spellings may not seem to have much in common at first glance, but linguists have hypothesized the intermediate forms *-adego and *-adjo (the asterisks indicate reconstructed forms). In classical Latin, the use of -aticum was rather restrained, but it was much more common in vulgar Latin. It was generally used to mean something like “that which is associated with or characterized by.” For example, viaticum was formed from via (“road”) and originally meant provisions for a trip. In vulgar Latin, it came to mean the trip itself, and later it entered French and then English as voyage. French applied the suffix to many more words than Latin did, as in feuillage (“leaves collectively”), which entered English as “foliage” from the Old French form foillage. English in turn has applied the suffix to still more words, like “leakage” and “pasturage” and yes, “signage.”
The Latin -aticum suffix entered other Romance languages as well. The Spanish form (found in words inherited from Latin as well as those borrowed from the other Romance languages) is -aje, as in andaraje (“anchorage”) and ramaje (“branches collectively”). The Portuguese form is -agem as in aprendizagem (“apprenticeship”) and folhagem (“foliage”). Italian has two different forms of the suffix. The form that was inherited directly from Latin is -àtico or -atico, as in baliàtico (wet nurse’s wages) and terratico (tax on land rents), but it is rather unusual in modern Italian. The more common form in Italian is -àggio or -aggio, which was borrowed from the Provençal form -atge (which is also the Catalan form). Some Italian examples include linguaggio (“language”) and viaggio (“voyage”).
The Latin noun-forming suffix -aticum is from the neuter form of the adjective-forming suffix -aticus, which was much more common than -aticum. The suffix -aticus too has entered French as -age by the same evolutionary process that acted on -aticum. Thus -age is used in French to form both nouns and adjectives, but the adjective-forming suffix has never been common in English. “Savage,” one of the few English adjectives to end in -age, was borrowed whole from the French sauvage or Old French salvage, which is from Latin silvaticus (“having to do with the forest”). In addition to the inheritance of -age words, French has also borrowed a number of Latin -aticus words more directly, changing the ending to -atique (-atik in Old French). This corresponds to the English ending -atic in words borrowed from Latin (often via French) and to -atico (with variations on the accent) found in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. One example is English “aquatic” and French aquatique from L. aquaticus (“having to do with water”).
The Latin -aticus derived from borrowed Greek adjectives ending in -tikos. Greek frenhtikoV (“delirious”) gave rise to Latin phreneticus (and eventually to English “frenetic”). Latin often applied the -ticus suffix to roots ending in -a, so that -aticus rather than -ticus became the normal suffix. Latin speakers widely expanded the use of the suffix, and applied it to more than just roots of Greek origin.
I could go on all day. We could discuss the fascinating histories of such words as “libertinage” and “massage” and “concubinage” and “bondage” and "ménage” and “cleavage” and some more “cleavage” . . . and . . . and . . . uh, where was I again? Ah, yes. After all that, there’s always “shrinkage,” isn’t there?
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