Chopping Off Syllables

By Maeve Maddox

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English speakers have been lopping syllables off words for centuries. And thank goodness for that when it comes to such mouthfuls as taximeter-cabriolet and streptococcus. I’d much rather call a cab or a taxi and talk about avoiding strep-throat.

I can’t help wondering, though, if the English spoken a generation or two in the future will consist of staccato sentences in which words of one and two syllables predominate.

Here are some shortenings already in common use:

doc – document.
exam – examination
fab – fabulous
graph – paragraph
info – information
lab – laboratory
meds – medications
op – opinion/operative/opportunity
promo – promotion (with meaning of advertising)
prep – preparation
rehab – rehabilitation
sax – saxophone
vac – vacuum (I’ve also seen it used as a shortened form of vacation, but I don’t know how that vac is supposed to be pronounced.)
vet – veterinarian or veteran
vocab – vocabulary

Some of these shortenings, even the ones I use in my own speech, bother me when I see them in formal writing. Others don’t faze me because I’ve grown used to them.

That’s the way of change in language. What infuriates one generation of speakers is mother’s milk to the next.

I recall reading a novel written in the early 20th century–by Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) I think–in which a young man is chided by one of his parents for using the slangy word “lunch” instead of “luncheon.”

Nowadays lunch is the common word for a meal between breakfast and supper. The word luncheon has not fallen completely out of use, but has acquired an altered meaning. My associations with luncheon include fussy repasts provided by and for ladies in flowered hats, and SPAM luncheon meat.

Is the shortening of words a bad thing?

Not necessarily, but–depending upon the intended audience–writers should probably give some thought to which shortened forms they promote by committing them to print.

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10 Responses to “Chopping Off Syllables”

  • Leigh

    I must say, shortening paragraph to graph bothers me, because we have visual graphs. When I’m using personal shorthand I shorten it to para. Personal shorthand is where I use most of these shortened forms. For anything more formal than note taking, I usually prefer to use the full word.

  • iEditor

    A good trick is to program abbreviated forms into Word’s autocorrect list. That way, you can type the quick, handy version. But your formal documents will have the long form. Emails and texts and other places where short-form feels more natural won’t be affected.

  • Peter

    graph – paragraph

    Never seen that one…fortunately – that’s horrible.

  • spike1

    Indeed.
    Graph means a chart depicting numerical information in a graphical manner, such as a line or scatter graph or bar chart.

  • nutmeag

    Yes, graph threw me too. As for vacation, I shorten it to vacay. Don’t the British use hols for holiday(s)?

  • Liz

    Never heard graph either. That’s a weird one, not a fan.

    For vacation “vac”, I pronounce it “VAYK”. I also write vacay sometimes, too. Depends.

  • Grace S.

    I think of all those you mentioned, “graph” for “paragraph” lends itself most to misunderstanding, as others have mentioned. I first ran into it when a customer e-mailed a correction for a flyer, and wrote it, “In the 2nd graf, change the word . . .”–I had to guess at what was meant. Maybe if it were spelled that way when written, there would be less confusion; but that wouldn’t change misconceptions when it’s spoken.

  • Brad K.

    My first reaction is that graph is more commonly used to mean “graphical display of data”. I hadn’t encountered the “paragraph” usage.

    op for opportunity overlooks one common phrase, photo op for “photographic public relations opportunity”.

    pix – pictures
    pixel – picture element
    sex – gender/sexual intercourse/sexually intimate relationship/(or Bruce Willis’ – I love this one, from The Whole Nine Yards) Sexual congress.
    porn – pornographic or sexually related or sexually explicit depiction in video, text, or image.

    How much of the “chopping off syllables” is an ongoing transition of English from its Old German roots? I noticed on a visit to Germany in 1975 that much of German depends on stacking syllables on top of more syllables – using compound words instead of phrases. The Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum (DSM), or German Maritime Museum, was one example. I recall this particular name, because they had a cheery and provocative series of posters advertising the museum.

    Some of the .. abbreviations? .. are from an attempt to condense business communication. The need to express a thought in a short and clear fashion keeps attention focused on the topic and not on the conveying phrase. Fab for fabrication or fabrication facility is one example.

    Poetry is another example of dense information content, but embroils the reader in both the rich experience of imagery – and often a focused study of the verse and word choice to avoid mistaking or missing intended underlying meanings. This would be moving the wrong direction when the intent is to convey the same, technically complex meaning quickly and clearly to the most people. Not all poetry readers (or listeners) would bring the same background in literature or cultural reference to interpreting and experiencing the passage. As an example, consider the phrase from the song about “I’m not talking ’bout movin’ in” and its various misinterpretations through the years, including in the Gina Davis movie Long Kiss Goodnight. “I’m not talkin’ ’bout the Lennon”, or “I’m not talkin’ ’bout millenium.” This didn’t hamper the music any, but in a business context similar misunderstandings might cost time, effort, material – maybe jobs.

  • Don

    This reminds me of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine”. The language of the future consisted of short sentences made up of two words and no flowery or figurative language. Maybe in the year 800,000 we will have no need for superfluous syllables.

  • john k lindgren

    “Chopping Off Syllables” the French they do it a lot.

    Like:

    “MacDo” is MacDonald’s

    “RestoU” Restaurant Universitaire (Faculty canteen)

    “Metro” Metropolitan (subway) (underground)

    I cannot think of anymore now,

    Cheers,

    John K.Lindgren
    http://www.carsanook.com

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