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The Word

Totes presh

Why we love and loathe clipped words

iStockphoto/Globe staff photo illustration/Pizza Ham Loaf

Are you totes OK with clipped words such as totes? Does totes sound too cazh, or even inappropes, or do you think it’s just adorbs when people shorten these words?

Totes (short for totally) and cazh (short for casual) are just two of the more recent abbreviated (or clipped) words in English. Many words we use every day are clippings: gas from gasoline; chimp instead of chimpanzee; deli, not delicatessen. In fact, it would be hard to get through a day without clipped words. You’d have to give up carbs and tech, seeing the fam (or at least your sibs); you couldn’t prep for a bio or chem (or, back in the day, a home ec) exam. You couldn’t undergo chemo, join a fan club (from fanatic), play your (violin)cello or piano(forte), or plug your Strat into an amp. No matter how good your intel or how extensive your recon, you couldn’t be sure your info was legit, which could affect your cred and your rep. On the upside, of course, you couldn’t catch the flu.


Familiarity breeds acceptance: Today you’d have a hard time finding someone who sniffs at taxi and prefers to hail a taximeter-cabriolet. But some certainly find totes cutesy and annoying. Why do we love to clip words, and why do newly clipped words nevertheless face such scorn?

English speakers have been cutting words off at the syllabic knees since at least the 16th century, with gent (from gentleman) and coz (for cousin) being two of the earliest words to get the clipping treatment. Some words get a little taken off the back--lab loses –oratory; rep ditches –etition--and some lose their fronts: alli comes off gator; earth detaches from quake. Occasionally, words get shortened at both ends at once, as with in-flu-enza. It makes sense: As things and their associated words become familiar, we treat them familiarly: ad instead of advertisement, cell instead of cellular phone. We’re often tempted to blame the young for clippings, but they crop up wherever people share a natural communicative shorthand: in professional groups, say. Lexicographers, for instance, talk of prons (pronunciations) and etys (etymologies).


Even Latin words and phrases used in English haven’t been immune to shortening, although some may find it infra dig (short for infra dignitatem, “beneath one’s dignity”), better left to the mob (from mobile vulgus, “fickle crowd”). As Joseph Addison, the English essayist, wrote resignedly in 1711, “It is perhaps this Humour of speaking no more than we needs must, which has so miserably curtailed some of our Words, that in familiar Writings and Conversations they often lose all but their first Syllables, as in mob. rep. pos. incog., and the like; and as all ridiculous Words make their first Entry into a Language by familiar Phrases, I dare not answer for these that they will not in time be looked upon as a part of our Tongue.” Jonathan Swift was less conciliatory, writing a year earlier, “I have done my utmost for some years past, to stop the progress of Mob...but have been plainly born down by Numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.”

But totes and cazh and adorbs are not shortened words for things, with their edges worn down by familiarity; they’re old qualitative words that have gotten a makeover, like a punky miniskirt cut out of an old school uniform. Sup is a newer, shinier version of super; gorge and brill are more emphatic than gorgeous and brilliant. Something dece is better than just decent; you deffo get more attention with deffo than definitely; using ledge and presh (for legendary and precious) reenergizes two older adjectives. These words make their speakers sound modern--until they become widespread enough to lose their edge.


Not every clipping is a success--despite ’za (pizza) making it into the official US Scrabble wordlist back in 2006, it’s rarely heard away from the game board. Some clippings are destined to be linguistic fads with no more lasting power than pet rocks or slap bracelets. Some will get shortened, and then shortened again: The eye-rolling whatever (in the sense of “have it your own way” or “I don’t care”) dates to at least 1973, but it was clipped first to whatev or whatevs, and then even further to wev or evs, growing more dismissive with each trim.

This illustrates perhaps the main advantage of the clipped words: succinctness. It’s obvs easier to point out the glaringly obvious without those extra letters, and if you urgently need the deets about something, why not skip dragging unnecessary -tails behind you? And using devo for devastated, say, gives you another kind of efficiency as well: You get extra bang out of (fewer) familiar syllables. By balancing slanginess--the clipping--with the underlying familiarity of the source word, you get bonus points for unconventionality, but you don’t really risk being misunderstood. Words like totes are more like remixes or cover versions of songs: enough novelty to grab listeners’ attention, but enough familiarity for comfort.


And because speakers of English, en masse, never miss a chance to do something creative with words, shortening familiar words is a high-reward, low-risk way to sound fresh without sacrificing mutual understanding. If in the process you drive your boyf (or girlf) crazy, you have my permission to tell them “whatevs.”

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at erin@wordnik.com.