What Is The Meaning Of ‘Ish’?

It’s only three letters, but it can do a lot.
Ish meaning represented by a woman teaching a class in front of a white board with four students seated in the foreground.

The English language is full of suffixes, which modify the words they’re attached to. Many of them have a very specific meaning — like the -s making words plural, or the -ed making words past tense — but some are looser. People make new words all the time, for example, by just attaching “-like” to various terms (if someone says something is child-like, or cat-like, or car-like, it isn’t too hard to determine the meaning). 

Perhaps one of the most flexible is the suffix -ish, which appears in words from Spanish to nightmarish. Pinning down -ish’s meaning can be a bit difficult, but we’re here to break down its main uses and include some of the most common examples. 

What Does -Ish Mean?

There are just a few broad categories you can sort words ending with “ish” into.

  • Nationality, Origin. The origin of -ish goes back to Old English, when it meant “from the country of.” It can also refer to other kinds of origins, like “Jewish,” meaning the descendants of Jacob’s fourth son Judah in the Hebrew Bible.
    • Spanish
    • Danish
    • Swedish
    • Finnish
  • Similar to, has the characteristics of. The second use that evolved for this suffix is also adjectival, describing something’s characteristics. For example, “childish” means “to be like a child.” In an interesting example of language evolution, the Germanic -isc is the ancestor of both the English -ish and the French -esque. What’s even more ironic is that English has adapted the French -esque, and it means pretty much the same thing as -ish in words like “Kafkaesque” and “picturesque,” though it sounds a bit fancier.
    • clownish
    • yellowish
    • wolfish
    • mannish
    • roguish
  • Around, roughly. At the beginning of the 20th century, the word “ish” started being used in conjunction with times. You could say you’re meeting at “8ish” to assure someone you don’t expect to see them at 8 on the dot. This isn’t too different from the previous usage, but it expanded the words -ish could be tacked onto. 
    • smallish
    • longish
    • slowish
  • Various verbs. There’s a class of English verbs that all end in “ish,” though it’s not exactly being used as an English suffix there. Instead, it’s a carryover from Old French.
    • finish
    • punish
    • blemish
    • establish
    • abolish
  • Not a suffix. It’s probably also worth noting there are plenty of words that end in -ish that have nothing to do with any of the above.
    • fish
    • swish
    • parish
  • Issue. It’s also worth highlighting that “ish” can be used as a slangy shortening of the word “issue,” as in “What’s the ish?” 

Novel Uses Of -Ish

The tension between the various uses of -ish has made the term very useful in wordplay. A common joke for Jews who don’t practice their religion very strictly is to describe themselves as Jewish. TV writer Kenya Barris has also used the suffix in tongue in cheek ways in three different shows he created: black-ish, mixed-ish and grown-ish.

The suffix is so commonly attached that arguably, it’s also become a word on its own. You can respond to the question “Do you want to meet at 7?” and respond with “Ish,” and an English speaker will understand that you want to meet around then.

It’s now such a useful hedge, you can pretty much attach ish to anything and people will pretty much get what you mean. Saying things like “It’s finished-ish” or “I’ll see you next week-ish” shouldn’t make sense, but they do. It’s a testament to the power of the Engl-ish language that tacking -ish on to whatever will sound OK…ish.

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