Old Spice morphology

There have been words I’ve been hearing lately on TV that are quite ¬†interesting (morphologically). One that comes to mind is a recent commercial for an Old Spice deodorant.

The scenario: the screen is split in four and shows four underarms putting on deodorant. All four views shift the photo to landscape and the underarm becomes animated. The first is said to be fresh. The second is said to be fresher. The third is, of course, the freshest. Here’s where it gets interesting. The fourth is said to be freshershest. Now, let me say that this is what I heard. I’ve only seen this commercial one time. I believe I heard correctly, but I will pay closer attention next time the commercial airs. Anyway…

I find the process of forming a “super-superlative” quite interesting. First thing that strikes me is that to do so, they would return the form to its -er form, add -sh, and then the superlative -est. Two questions: (i) why go back to the -er form, and (ii) what is this -sh form?

It appears that their logic went something like this: since we had the form freshest, to add another superlative level to it, why not add -er? We do not want to reduplicate -est because it will just sound silly and not “cute enough” for television (freshestest). But where can we add this -er suffix? Freshester? No. It seems like meaning would be taken away in this form. So it must be infixed in the word. But where and how? Let’s create fresher again and try removing the boundary of the two morphemes fresh and -est, namely -shest. This, then, gives us freshershest. The question still remains, though: why this boundary? What is it about this form rather than, say, freshester. My guess is that is has to do with the prosody of the latter when compared with the former. The former, somehow, sounds more likely to fit like real words that exist (e.g., freshest).

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2 Responses to Old Spice morphology

  1. tom says:

    For those that haven’t seen the commercial, here’s a link.

    I’d agree, if you are going to abuse the language in this form, freshester makes a better comparative-superlative-comparative than their freshershest.

    • Mircea says:

      Thanks for the comment, Tom.

      It’s hard for me to say which of the two I prefer. It appears to me that what makes “freshershest” a more attractive candidate is that it breaks more rules (and what’s more fun to English speakers–heck, all speakers of any language–than breaking rules?) Again, I cannot understand what made the person who came up with this word essentially “dip” into the first syllable to extract the consonant [sh]. It would appear some form of reduplication, but how would we formally represent these rules?

      But I agree with your assessment simply because I cannot see any explanation for their [shest] form.

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