I’m in love with the name Boaty McBoatface. It’s a fantastic name, because it manages to convey so much information, by using a variety of affixes English adopted from its own heritage and other languages … and it manages to do it with a subtle, but unmistakable tone not lost on native speakers.
The name actually follows a template: ROOT-(e)y Mc-ROOT-face. One could, for example, say Oakey McOakface or Trainy McTrainface or Radishey McRadishface or Steely McSteelface or Bombshelly McBombshellface or Banana-y McBananaface or stuff any other noun in there and the semantic output would be absolutely predictable: identifiably a name, and a slightly sarcastic one at that.
Why does this work? The answer is that all of the affixes are name affixes in English — that is, we only use them in the context of modifying names. Combining the first two will yield valid names: Kimmy McKim, Stevey McSteve, Johnny McJohn, Petey McPete, Jenny McJen, and so on. While most of these last names are unlikely to appear, there are all valid in English.
Let’s explain why, step by step.
First, the -(e)y suffix. This suffix is most likely derived from the French feminine suffix (-ie): Marie, Natalie, Amélie, and so forth. In English, it partners with single-syllable names that end with consonant sounds — that is, *Steven-y and *Sarah-y do not conform to usage. It is also exclusively used as a diminutive — the primary diminutive for single-syllable names (e.g. Kim, John), and a second-order diminutive for multisyllabic names (i.e. Steven → Steve → Stevey, Peter → Pete → Petey, Jennifer → Jen → Jenny). Second-order diminutives are often used by close friends and family members in order to separate themselves from other members of a person’s social circle. (Occasionally, however, both diminutions will be used simultaneously to generate a first-order nickname, e.g. Sheila → Shell(e)y.)
When generalized to apply to all nouns, many of the usage restrictions are dropped, hence why Banana-y conveys semantic content. I’ll also note that the difference between -y and -ey after stops seems to be a matter of taste (that is, Boaty and Boatey are equally valid) and that the pattern VOWEL + NASAL usually results in reduplication of the nasal (Gym → Gymmy), while those of DIPHTHONG + NASAL and CONSONANT + NASAL may result in -y or -ey (Train → Trainy OR Trainey, Elm → Elmy OR Elmey).
The second element in our template is the prefix Mc-. This is used in names of Gaelic ancestry, and originally meant “of the clan of”, but has since generalized to just be a possible last name marker in English.
Finally, we have the suffix -face. This is a relatively new innovation, native to English and following the ancient Germanic pattern of converting words to particles (e.g. -like, -most, and so on). When I’ve seen it, it seems to convey two facets of meaning:
- It is an identity marker. That is, -face is reflexive on its root and suggests that its root is the most like an ideal of all members of the class of things that that root describes.
- It is a diminutive marker. That is, it’s used to create nicknames and such.
When used in conjunction with the prefix Mc-, this creates an interesting composite effect. Mc- is a marker that makes the root more formal, as family names are always more formal than given names, while -face is one that simultaneously makes the root less formal, as it is a diminutive suffix. Hence a name like Shawn ought to take one affix (McShawn, Shawnface) or another, but it oughtn’t take both (*McShawnface … ??).
But while this combination is impossible for names, it does become possible when abstracted, and that’s because in the abstraction we toss the semantic value of a name that a name brings. English doesn’t process gradations of formality in common nouns, and this is why we reanalyze diminution on common nouns as sarcasm markers. Hence, a phrase like Boaty McBoatface works on two levels:
- As a name, it means something like “Little Boat, of the Clan of Most Boatlike Boats”. But this name value is semiotically absurd for most English speakers, which yields the second meaning:
- As a sarcastic phrase, it’s a name-like un-name to be inserted where a name is expected … obviously, for humorous value.