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Sm txt mssng


SHORT: 1 stop on the tlde’s rout 2 diacritic & mdrn pnctuatn mrk was its evltion out of mrks made by scribes 2 indic. tht an abbrv. had been made. Ths ‘mrk of suspen.’, suspendd as it was in the spce abve the remnng lettrs, got its name from Ltn titulus, mng ‘title’ or ‘superscrptn’, & frm thr (via Spnsh) ‘tilde’ made its way into the Eng. lang. In ths pre-prntng press time, with evrythng wrtn by hnd, the apl of a recgnisd syst. of abbrv.s is obv. Tht triumvrte of intrltd savings tht driv’s so mny innvatns - time, spce & mny - gave rise 2 a lrge & vried no. of ‘offcl’ abbrvs of commnly wrtn wrds & phrses. Vellm dsn’t grw on trees, u know.


1 exmple is the shrtng of Anno Domini 2 Ao Dñi, another the shrtng of ‘est’ 2 ‘e-’ in the txt of the Exeter Domesday Bk.A  Bt scrbl abbrv. was not ltd 2 only thse wdly recognisd ways of shrtng crtn wrds. Spcfic instnces of ltd spce, materials or reptition of a crtn name might lead a scribe given to free-thinking & imgntion 2 go off the beaten trck in wht r dlightfly trmd ‘capricious abbrvs’.


Nr did the habit of shrtng wrds bgn wth the mnksh scrbs of medieval Europe - exmples can b fnd in the vry roots of wrtn lang. In ancient Greece & Rome they flrishd’; a Roman soldr might say tht he was fightng 4 the SPQR rather than the Senātus Poplsque Rōmānus. & whn crvng lettrng in2 stone, the abbrv. of wrds is evn mre undrstndbl. Lang. of course evolvs, & so cnsquntly does the need 2 shrtn it. In the early 18th C. a mnia 4 abbrv. bcame fshionble enough 2 attrct the pointed stirical pen of Jnathn Swft, in his Intro. 2 Plite Cnversatn (pub. 1738):


‘The only Invntn of late Years, whch hth any way contrbutd 2wrds Pliteness in Discourse, is tht of abbrv.ng or reducng wrds of mny Syllables in2 1, by loppng off the rst… Pozz fr Positve, Mobb fr Mobile, Phizz fr Physiognomy, Rep fr Reputatn, Plenipo fr Plenipotentiary, Incog fr Incognito, Hyppo fr Hippo fr Hypochndriacs, Bam fr Bamboozle, & Bamboozle fr God knows wht.’1


Prhps ths lst is rvealng in shwng us jst which wrds it was necessry 2 use so oftn in the 18th C. tht shrtnd frms bcame cmnly-us’d! Lt us b mre prcise abt wht we mn by abbrv. (frm Ltn brevis, mning short) &, as brvity is our focus, I’ll attmpt 2 b brief.


Ther r svral spcific modes of shrtng wrds tht cme undr the umbrla of the colquial use of ‘abbrv’. Frstly, acrnyms: wrds frmd frm the initial prts of a wrd, such as NATO (Nrth Atlntic Treaty Orgnisatn) or sonar (Snd Nvigatn & Ranging. Thse r prnouncd as a new wrd (i.e. Nay-toe).


Scndly, initialsms: frmed from the initial lettrs of each wrd, thse r splt out whn speakng: FAQ, DIY, UK. They r mst oftn, bt nt always, captalisd (i.e. i.e.)2


Thrdly, trncation & cntrction - wht lngist Hns Mrchnd calld ‘clppng’.3 Mst of Swft’s exmples r trncation (or ‘fnl clppng’) - only the frst prt of the wrd is used. Cntrction (or ‘medial clpping’) is whr intrnl ltrs or snds r omted, such as ‘do not’ 2 ‘don’t’.


‘Clppng’, ‘lopping’ – if lang. is an ovrgrwn bush, we cannot (can’t) rsist the wish 2 prne it. Evn in a dgtl spce tht isn’t physicly ltd like tht of a sht of prchmnt, it sms necessry – prhps bcause attntn is cntrctd. Eye-time, fingr-time, brain-time r ltd prcious cmdities as scrbl ink & velum 1ce wer.


Bt whr is the tilde in all ths? At sme point the fll stp (Prof.) & the apstrphe (isn’t) bcame the pnctuatn mrks of choice 2 indicate tht sme txt is msng, & the tilde mvd on 2 other things. RIP the titulus. FYI, it hdn’t gne AWOL - it stck arnd mst fmliarly in Spnsh & Portguese as the ñ (ene). Bt tht’s anothr (lng) stry.



LONG: One step on the tilde’s route to diacritic and modern punctuation mark was its evolution out of marks made by scribes to indicate that an abbreviation had been made. This ‘mark of suspension’, suspended as it was in the space above the remaining letters, got its name from the Latin titulus, meaning ‘title’ or ‘superscription’, and from there (via Spanish) ‘tilde’ made its way into the English language. In this pre-printing press time, with everything written by hand, the appeal of a recognised system of abbreviations is obvious. That triumvirate of interrelated savings that drives so many innovations - time, space and money - gave rise to a large and varied number of ‘official’ abbreviations of commonly written words and phrases. Vellum doesn’t grow on trees, you know.


One example is the shortening of ‘Anno Domini’ to ‘Ao Dñi’, another the shortening of ‘est’ to ē in the text of the Exeter Domesday Book.A But scribal abbreviation was not limited to only these widely recognised ways of shortening certain words. Specific instances of limited space, materials or repetition of a certain name might lead a scribe given to free-thinking and imagination to go off the beaten track in what are delightfully termed ‘capricious abbreviations’.


Nor did the habit of shortening words begin with the monkish scribes of medieval Europe - examples can be found in the very roots of written language. In ancient Greece and Rome they flourished – a Roman soldier might say that he was fighting for the SPQR rather than the Senātus Populusque Rōmānus. And when carving lettering into stone, the abbreviation of words is even more understandable.


Language of course evolves, and so consequently does the need to shorten it. In the early eighteenth century a mania for abbreviation became fashionable enough to attract the pointed satirical  pen of Jonathan Swift, in his Introduction to Polite Conversation (published 1738):


‘The only Invention of late Years, which hath any way contributed towards Politeness in Discourse, is that of abbreviating or reducing Words of many Syllables into one, by lopping off the rest… Pozz for Positive, Mobb for Mobile, Phizz for Physiognomy, Rep for Reputation, Plenipo for Plenipotentiary, Incog for Incognito, Hyppo for Hippo for Hypochondriacs, Bam for Bamboozle, and Bamboozle for God knows what.’“1


Perhaps this list is revealing in showing us just which words it was necessary to use so often in the eighteenth century that shortened forms became commonly-used! Let us be more precise about what we mean by abbreviation (from the Latin brevis, meaning short). And, as brevity is our focus, I will attempt to be brief.


There are several specific modes of shortening words that come under the umbrella of the colloquial use of ‘abbreviation’. Firstly, acronyms: words formed from the initial parts of a word, such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) or sonar (Sound Navigation and Ranging. These are pronounced as a new word (i.e. Nay-toe).


Secondly, initialisms: formed from the initial letters of each word, these are spelt out when speaking: FAQ, DIY, UK. They are most often, but not always, capitalised (i.e. i.e.)2


Thirdly, truncation and contraction - what linguist Hans Marchand called ‘clipping’.4 Most of Swift’s examples are truncation (or ‘final clipping’) – only the first part of the word is used. Contraction (or ‘medial clipping’) is where internal letters or sounds are omitted, such as do not to don’t.


‘Clipping’, ‘lopping’ – if language is an overgrown bush, we cannot (can’t) resist the wish to prune it. Even in a digital space that isn’t physically limited like that of a sheet of parchment, it seems necessary – perhaps because attention is contracted. Eye-time, finger-time, brain-time are now as limited precious commodities as scribal ink and vellum once were.


But where is the tilde in all this? At some point the full stop (Prof.) and the apostrophe (isn’t) became the punctuation marks of choice to indicate that one or more letters are missing, and the tilde moved on to other things. RIP the titulus. FYI, it hadn’t gone totally AWOL – it stuck around most familiarly in Spanish and Portuguese as the ñ (ene). But that’s another (long) story.


Didn’t that take up a lot of space?

1: Jonathan Swift, quoted in ‘Vocabulary’, by Dieter Kastovsky, in A History of the English Language, (2008)


2: To full stop or not to full stop? That is the question. Try asking New Hart's Rules.


3: Hans Marchand, The Categories and Types of Present-day English Word-formation (1969)


A: A page from the Exeter Domesday Book (1086). Note in the top right corner: ӗ for est; borđ for bordarii; cū for cum.


B–F: A selection of titulus marks indicating that letters have been omitted, from various medieval manuscripts. Shapes, as well as exact conventions of use, differed quite widely across place and time.


B: Harley Psalter, c. 1000-1050, England


C: Malmesbury Bible, 1407, Belgium


D: Charter, 1126, Galicia


E: Manuscript, 12th century, Italy


F: Scribal pattern book, c. 1510-1517, Germany

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