Dear Word Detective: In one of your columns recently, you were discussing the origin of the word “landscape” and made a reference to how “scape” has been appended to words to mean looking at, etc., as in seascape, or Netscape (ha!). This reminded me of a discussion I had with a friend of mine about how “thon” is appended to a lot of words, to mean something long or a race of sorts, as in “phone-a-thon” or “telethon.” My friend asserted that these words derived from the erroneous assumption that the “thon” in the word “marathon” meant something. He then pointed out that the same thing has happened with “holic,” from alcoholic, and now we have chocoholics, workaholics, and the like. First I would like to know if my friend is correct about these two examples, and then I would like to ask if there is a term that explains this phenomena. I see it happening now with “palooza” — because of the successful series of rock music festivals called “Lollapalooza,” everything is now “something-a-palooza.” Can you help? — Kris Markman.
Run for your lives — it’s the Invasion of the Cookie-Cutter Suffixes! Your friend is absolutely right about the “thon” phenomenon. Here we are, up to our necks in walkathons and bikeathons and dog-frisbee-catch-a-thons, but “thon” by itself really doesn’t mean a darn thing. All these formations have been based on the word “marathon,” meaning a 26-mile foot race. But the original Marathon wasn’t a thing — it was a place in Ancient Greece where the Greeks defeated the Persians in an important battle in 490 B.C. It was the heroic effort of Pheidippedes, the Greek messenger who ran the 26 miles between Marathon and Athens carrying the news of the victory that gave the name “marathon” to a long race or ordeal.
Offhand, I can’t think of a general term for this linguistic phenomenon, but it seems to have started with “telethon,” which dates all the way back to the dawn of television itself in the late 1940′s. Personally, I’d put up with a hundred more “thons” if we could just lose “gate,” as in “Troopergate” and “Filegate,” to name just two recent examples. There have, of course, been dozens of such “gates” inflicted on us over the years since the Watergate scandal by the “gate-aholic” media, with no end in sight. Perhaps we should just give up and call the whole phenomenon “gate-a-thon.”