Inside the urge to shorten
When a new electronic gadget appears, it’s taken as given that it will be smaller, lighter, and more compact than the previous model (even if the basic functionality remains the same). We marvel over old computers that took up entire rooms and laugh at early cellphones the size of a man’s shoe. Devices that transmit information get smaller and smaller, and we accept it as the natural progression.
Words transmit information, too, but there’s not an equal outpouring of awe when they get smaller, quite the reverse. The use of contractions in formal writing has only recently been deemed acceptable by the guardians of style, and the abbreviated style of text messaging is regularly (and erroneously) blamed for every modern language ill. (Not to mention the outrage we saw when the clipped word ‘za, for pizza, was added to the official Scrabble dictionary.) For some reason, short and simple is fine when it comes to sentences, but the desire for conciseness and simplicity doesn’t extend to individual words.
Word-shortening has long been considered a particular vice of English, with Voltaire claiming that “The English gain two hours a day more than we [the French] do, by eating their syllables.” Jonathan Swift also observed that “we cram one syllable, and cut off the rest, as the owl fattened her mice after she had bit off their legs, to prevent them from running away; and if ours be the same reason for maiming our words, it will certainly answer the end; for I am sure no other nation will desire to borrow them.” (A thought which itself might have benefited from a bit of clipping.) The English philologist John Horne Tooke considered language clipping only natural, with “Letters, like soldiers, being very apt to desert and drop off in a long march.”
Wanting to take the quickest, most familiar, and most direct path to meaning is not a new thing, as we see in two recent books. The first, “Short Cuts” by Alexander and Nicholas Humez and Rob Flynn, covers almost every kind of abbreviated communication, verbal and nonverbal, from street signs and slogans to text messages and T-shirts, across the course of human history. (Did you know the Romans used to begin letters with the abbreviation SVBE, standing for “si vales, bene est” meaning “if you’re well, that’s good”)?
“Short Cuts” gives us fascinating investigations into the diverse situations where we have to get the right message across but are limited by time, space, or simply convention, including the terse language of “note jobs” (bank robberies committed by passing a “demand note” to a teller), calling cards (which the authors call the “nineteenth-century hybrid of an answering machine and Facebook”), Christmas cards (which the Romans, again, presaged with gifts of oil lamps stamped with seasonal messages), obituaries (the list of survivors mentioned in newspaper obituaries is sometimes called “the lifeboat”), and dog tags. After reading “Short Cuts,” the 800 words of a normal newspaper column feel as vast as the prairie, and a novel might as well be interstellar space.
Other motivations for shortening words include humor and demonstrating in-groupness, both of which we find behind the word OK. OK — the word called in a story by Edward Everett Hale “the shortest message of comfort” — is the subject of another new book, Allan Metcalf’s “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word.” Metcalf, the longtime executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, goes beyond the birth of OK (created as an offhand journalistic fillip in the Boston Morning Post one day in 1839, used as a facetious abbreviation for “all correct”) to investigate the whole life of those two little letters, including such diverse topics as the amplifying power of the telegraph in legitimizing and disseminating OK, uses of OK in names (such as the OK Corral and a little-known, now-defunct product of the Coca-Cola Co., OK Soda), the “I’m OK — You’re OK” phenomenon, and that Louisa May Alcott is the first known author to use the spelling “okay,” in “Little Women” — although it was edited out in a later edition.
After reading Metcalf’s book, it’s easy to accept his claim that OK is “America’s greatest word”: One sign of the success of something is the eagerness others show in claiming it for their own, and OK is no exception: Despite OK’s rock-solid Boston origin, there are those who insist it comes from Greek “olla kalla” (all right), Finnish “oikea” (correct), French “O qu-oui!” or Wolof “waw kay” (both meaning “yes indeed”), or Choctaw “okeh” (used to end assertions).
“Short Cuts” and “OK” are separate testaments to language ingenuity, demonstrating that it’s not (as is often proposed) laziness in language that drives clippings and shortcuts, but a very human combination of eagerness, creativity, and familiarity. We’re eager (or in a hurry) to express our ideas; we enjoy playing with different ways to express them; and, once we’ve developed more than a passing acquaintance with a word or a phrase, or even with an entirely new area of vocabulary, we look for opportunities to show off our new intimacy (much like being able to say Dubya or Barry instead of “Mr. President”). Shortening words isn’t a sign of ignorance, but a reflection of deeper knowledge.
Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com.