Q From Svetlana Neshko, Ukraine: Help me please to understand the suffix -ati. The word glitterati is slangy or derogative, while literati is formal. I can’t find anything about digerati or fasherati. Is this suffix used to make pejorative plurals, or is it used to give a formal overtone to new words?
A You’re right to suggest that words ending in -ati do tend to be mildly pejorative, often with undertones of triviality. Examples include glitterati, the fashionable set of people engaged in show business or some other glamorous activity; fasherati, the set of people concerned with fashion; soccerati, those involved with soccer; digerati, people with expertise or professional involvement in information technology (sometimes used neutrally), and illuminati, people who claim to possess special enlightenment or knowledge of something (it was originally the name of a Bavarian secret society founded in 1776, and of a sect of 16th-century Spanish heretics; it’s also used by conspiracy theorists for that mysterious group of people who really run the world).
Informal or slang terms ending in -ati have become quite common in recent years, but it’s unclear whether we are actually seeing a new suffix (lexicographers would prefer me to say that it is actually a combining form, since it adds an additional layer of meaning to the words it attaches to, rather than just changing its grammatical function, which is what suffixes do). Dictionaries that include such terms usually say they’re blends of English words with the older literati, tacking the second part of that word on to the first part of another. A factor that suggests we’re dealing with blends is that words are created with -erati as well as -ati, the former being used when the stem doesn’t already end in -er.
I’m not entirely sure of its status myself: it may be that what started out as punning inventions of new words by analogy is turning into a true combining form. But the chances are, fashion being so ephemeral, that the fasherati will have got bored with such words before we can be sure.