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The E- prefix

Pronounced /iː/Help with pronunciation

It seems that e- is the new cyber-: a convenient combining form, tackable at will on to almost any other word to imply the white heat of the technological revolution. This came home to me during the holiday break, when I discovered that a current buzzword for online business is e-tail. It’s a less than elegant coinage, even though in Britain it lacks the special resonance of the American slang meaning of tail.

More evidence came from Liz Lavallee in the COPYEDITING list; she reported that her local newspaper, the Potomac News in Woodbridge, Virginia, had the headline “1998: A year of truly e-mazing events”. Another punning headline of a similar kind was one I found in a British computer magazine, which referred to the e-conomy. And a look through my files reveals 63 other examples of new words formed by tacking e- on the front of an existing word, including e-trade, e-asset, e-envoy, e-postmarked, e-junkmailer, and e-scoop. Most of these are nonce formations, invented to satisfy a momentary need and not likely to be seen again, but some, such as e-cash, e-democracy, and e-text, have established what looks like a firm foothold in current usage.

The daddy of these compounds is the comparatively venerable e-mail, first recorded as a noun in 1982 and as a verb in 1987. The e- was at first just a convenient abbreviation for electronic. As the word gained wider currency from the early nineties onwards, many newer users were uncertain whether the initial letter was an abbreviation or a prefix, and whether the word should be written with a hyphen or not. Hence the alternative forms E-mail, Email, and email. It’s an understandable confusion, and especially so as writing the word without a hyphen leads to something that looks foreign (specifically, the French word for enamel).

The debate, or possibly the confusion, has not yet wholly worked itself through. But the growth in other words with the same prefix has gone a long way towards settling matters, as the form has become more common and it is more obvious that it can be stuck on the front of a whole range of words. It is also settling down to include the hyphen, perhaps because most of the words that would be formed without it look very odd.

You can tell it’s a live and fashionable prefix by the range of creations using it, few of them either clever or necessary. We don’t need e-tail, for example, because we already have e-business and e-commerce. In October a health specialist was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying “Everybody in this country knows the phrase ‘e-commerce’, but nobody knows the phrase ‘e-health’”. The first half of that is questionable: despite several years of circulation, I would imagine that a quite a large proportion of Americans neither knows the word e-commerce nor cares what it means. But the second half seems true enough: it’s another word for the application of telecommunications to medicine, rather more frequently called telemedicine or telehealth.

So it’s another unneeded coinage. We shall see many more before we’re through with this fashion.

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Page created 16 Jan 1999