An abbreviation, from the Latin ‘brevis’, meaning ‘short’, is a shortened form of a word or phrase by any method. It may consist of a group of letters or words taken from the full version of the word or phrase. For example, the word abbreviation can itself be represented by the abbreviation ‘abbr.’, ‘abbrv.’, or ‘abbrev.’. One I hadn’t heard of before until I began my research was ‘NPO’, for Nil (nothing) Per (by) Os (mouth), an abbreviated medical instruction. Abbreviations may also consist of initials only, a mixture of initials and words, or words or letters representing words in another language, for example e.g., i.e. or RSVP. Some types of abbreviations are acronyms, of which some are pronounceable and some ‘initialisms’ or grammatical contractions. Abbreviations have a long history. It has been said that they were created to avoid spelling out whole words, and this might have been done to save time and space, given that many inscriptions were carved in stone, and also to provide secrecy. In both Greece and Rome the reduction of words to single letters was common.
There are quite a few different abbreviations. Acronyms, initialisms, contractions and a new one to me, ‘crasis’, share some semantic and phonetic functions, and all four are connected by the term ‘abbreviation’ in loose parlance. We know an acronym is a word or name formed from the initial components of a longer name or phrase. They are usually formed from the initial letters of words, as in NATO, but they sometimes also use syllables, as in Benelux. They can also be a mixture, as in radar. I am also well-used to an initialism, an abbreviation pronounced by spelling out each letter, for example FBI, USA or BBC whilst a contraction is a reduction in the length of a word or phrase made by omitting certain of its letters or syllables. Often, but not always, the contraction includes the first and last letters or elements. Examples of contractions are “li’l” (for “little”), “I’m” (for “I am”), and “he’d’ve” (for “he would have”). But crasis is more difficult to explain as its usage varies in different languages. Basically it combines two words to form a single word. Except it varies according to language! But in Spanish for example, crasis occurs between prepositions ending in a vowel and the masculine definite article ‘el’. So ‘a el’ becomes ‘al’ and ;de el’ becomes ‘del’. As I have said though, abbreviations have a long history as they were created to avoid spelling out whole words. This might be have been done to save time and space (given that many inscriptions were carved in stone) and also to provide secrecy. In both Greece and Rome, the reduction of words to single letters was common. In Roman inscriptions, words were commonly abbreviated by using the initial letter or letters of words, and most inscriptions have at least one abbreviation. However, some could have more than one meaning, depending on their context. For example, ⟨A⟩ could be an abbreviation for many words, such as ‘ager’, ‘amicus’, ‘annus’, ‘as’, ‘Aulus’, ‘Aurelius’, ‘aurum’ and ‘avus’. Many frequent abbreviations consisted of more than one letter, for example COS for ‘consul’ and COSS for its nominative etc. plural ‘consules’. Abbreviations were frequently used in English from its earliest days. Manuscripts of copies of the Old English poem Beowulf used many abbreviations and the standardisation of English in the 15th through to the 17th centuries included a growth in the use of such abbreviations. At first, abbreviations were sometimes represented with various suspension signs, not only full stops. In the Early Modern English period between the 15th and 17th centuries, the ‘thorn’ Þ was used for ‘th’, as in Þe (‘the’). In modern times, ⟨Þ⟩ was often used in the form ‘y’ for promotional reasons, as in Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. Over the years however, the lack of convention in some style guides has made it difficult to determine which two-word abbreviations should be abbreviated with full-stops and which should not. Widespread use of electronic communication through mobile phones and the Internet during the 1990s led to a marked rise in colloquial abbreviation and this was due largely to the increasing popularity of textual communication services such as instant and text messaging. The original Short Messaging Service (SMS) supported message lengths of 160 characters at most. More recently Twitter, a popular social networking service, began driving abbreviation use with 140 character message limits.
In modern English, there are several conventions for abbreviations, and the choice may be confusing. The only rule universally accepted is that one should be consistent, and to make this easier, publishers express their preferences in a style guide. For example, if the original word was capitalised then the first letter of its abbreviation should retain the capital, for example Lev. for ‘Leviticus’, but when a word is abbreviated to more than a single letter and was originally spelled with lower case letters then there is no need for capitalisation. However, when abbreviating a phrase where only the first letter of each word is taken, then all letters should be capitalized, as in YTD for ‘year-to-date’, PCB for ‘printed circuit board’ and FYI for ‘for your information’.
A full stop is often used to signify an abbreviation, but opinion is divided as to when and if this should happen. Various authors have written about this, but it is generally accepted that in English the full-stop is usually included regardless of whether or not it is a contraction, e.g. ‘Dr.’ or ‘Mrs.’. In some cases, full-stops are optional, as in either ‘US’ or ‘U.S.’ for ‘United States’, ‘EU’ or ‘E.U.’ for ‘European Union’, and ‘UN’ or ‘U.N.’ for ‘United Nations’. There are some house styles however, American ones included, that remove the full-stops from almost all abbreviations. Acronyms that were originally capitalised (with or without full-stops) but have since entered the vocabulary as generic words are no longer written with capital letters nor with any full-stops. Examples are sonar, radar, lidar, laser and scuba. Today, spaces are generally not used between single-letter abbreviations of words in the same phrase, so one almost never encounters ‘U. S.’. There is a question about how to pluralise abbreviations, particularly acronyms. Some writers tend to pluralise abbreviations by adding an ’s’ , as in ‘two PC’s have broken screens’, although this notation typically indicates a possessive case. However, this style is not preferred by many style guides. Here in the United Kingdom, many British publications follow some of these guidelines in abbreviation. For the sake of convenience, many British publications, including the BBC and The Guardian newspaper, have completely done away with the use of full stops in all abbreviations. Acronyms are often referred to with only the first letter of the abbreviation capitalised. For instance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation can be abbreviated as ‘Nato’ or ‘NATO’, and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome as ‘Sars’ or ‘SARS’, compared with laser which has made the full transition to an English word and is rarely capitalised at all. But initialisms are always written in capitals, for example ‘British Broadcasting Corporation’ is abbreviated to ‘BBC’, never ‘Bbc’. An initialism is also an acronym but is not pronounced as a word. When abbreviating scientific units, no space is added between the number and unit (100mph, 100m, 10cm, 10°C). A doubled letter appears in abbreviations of some Welsh names, as in Welsh the double “l” is a separate sound, ‘Ll. George’ for British prime minister David Lloyd George. Some titles, such as ‘Reverend’ and ‘Honourable’, are spelt out when preceded by ‘the’, rather than as ‘Rev.’ or ‘Hon.’ respectively. A repeatedly used abbreviation should be spelt out for identification on its first occurrence in a written or spoken passage and abbreviations likely to be unfamiliar to many readers should be avoided. Writers often use shorthand to denote units of measure. Such shorthand can be an abbreviation, such as ‘in’ for inch or can be a symbol such as ‘km’ for kilometre. In the International System of Units (SI) manual the word ‘symbol’ is used consistently to define the shorthand used to represent the various SI units of measure. The manual also defines the way in which units should be written, the principal rules being that the conventions for upper and lower case letters must be observed, for example 1 MW (megawatts) is equal to 1,000,000 watts and 1,000,000,000 mW (milliwatts). One I’ve not seen (perhaps American?), which is no full-stops should be inserted between letters, for example ‘m.s’, which correctly uses the middle dot is the symbol for ‘metres multiplied by seconds’, but I knew that ‘ms’ is the symbol for milliseconds. No full-stops should follow the symbol unless the syntax of the sentence demands otherwise (for example a full stop at the end of a sentence). I do know of syllabic abbreviations though, which is usually formed from the initial syllables of several words, such as ‘Interpol’, stemming from ‘Inter’national and ‘pol’ice. It is a variant of the acronym. Syllabic abbreviations are usually written using lower case, sometimes starting with a capital letter and are always pronounced as words rather than letter by letter. Syllabic abbreviations should be distinguished from portmanteaus, which combine two words without necessarily taking whole syllables from each.
There are also interesting changes made in different languages, however syllabic abbreviations are not widely used in English. Some UK government agencies such as Ofcom, for Office of Communications and the former Oftel for Office of Telecommunications use this style. In America, New York City has various neighbourhoods named by syllabic abbreviation, such as Tribeca (Triangle below Canal Street) and SoHo (South of Houston Street). I wonder where they obtained that name. This usage has spread into other American cities, giving SoMa, San Francisco (South of Market) and LoDo, Denver (Lower Downtown), amongst others. The Chicago-based electric service provider ComEd is a syllabic abbreviation of Commonwealth and (Thomas) Edison. Partially syllabic abbreviations are preferred by the US Navy, as they increase readability amidst the large number of initialisms that would otherwise have to fit into the same acronyms. Hence ‘6 DESRON’ is used (in the full capital form) to mean “Destroyer Squadron 6”, whilst COMNAVAIRLANT would be ‘Commander, Naval Air Force (in the) Atlantic’. Apparently syllabic abbreviations are a prominent feature of Newspeak, the fictional language of George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. The political contractions of Newspeak’s ‘Ingsoc’ (English Socialism) and ‘Minitrue’ (Ministry of Truth), are described by Orwell as similar to real examples of German and Russian contractions in the 20th century. Like the Nazi ‘Nationalsozialismus’ and Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei) and the politburo (Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), the contractions in Newspeak are supposed to have a political function by virtue of their abbreviated structure itself. Nice sounding and easily pronounceable, their purpose was to mask all ideological content from the speaker. A more recent syllabic abbreviation has emerged with the disease COVID-19 (Corona virus Disease 2019), caused by the Severe Acute Respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 virus, itself frequently abbreviated to SARS-CoV-2, partly an initialism. It seems though that in German, syllabic abbreviations were and are common. Much like acronyms in English, they have a distinctly modern connotation, although contrary to popular belief many date back to before 1933, if not the end of the Great War. Kriminalpolizei, literally ‘criminal police’ but idiomatically the Criminal Investigation Department of any German police force, begat ‘KriPo’ (variously capitalised), and likewise Schutzpolizei, the ‘protection police’ or ‘uniform department’, begat ‘SchuPo’. Along the same lines, the Swiss Federal Railways’ Transit Police, the Transportpolizei, are abbreviated as the ‘TraPo’. Syllabic abbreviations are not only used in politics, however. Many business names, trademarks, and service marks from across Germany are created on the same pattern. For a few examples, there is Aldi, from ‘Theo Albrecht’, the name of its founder, followed by ‘discount’, Haribo, from ‘Hans Riegel’, the name of its founder, followed by ‘Bonn’, the town of its head office and Adidas, from ‘Adolf “Adi” Dassler’, the nickname of its founder followed by his surname. Meanwhile syllabic abbreviations are common in Spanish. Examples abound in organisation names such as Pemex for ‘Petróleos Mexicanos’ (“Mexican Petroleums”) or Fonafifo for ‘Fondo Nacional de Financimiento Forestal’ (National Forestry Financing Fund). There are others in different languages, but I did note that the English phrase ‘Gung ho’ originated as a Chinese abbreviation.
But do we now use abbreviations as it is easier when talking to like-minded folk, or is it to deliberately exclude others from our conversation. I can understand that there are times when we might want to impart certain information, for example a doctor might wish a group of medical staff to comprehend the needs of a patient they are treating without letting the patient be worried, but there will be other times when a patient should know what is happening with them. I remember some years ago now having a senior doctor visit me whilst I was in hospital and he had a group of student doctors with him. The senior doctor began by telling the other doctors who I was, why I was there and what treatment I was being given. But the doctor did not speak directly to me. So, at the end of his discussion with the other doctors the senior then asked if there were any questions. At which point I raised my hand and said “Yes. All that you have said sounds very interesting, but what exactly does it mean to me, please?”. At which point the senior doctor looked down at me, smiled and turned to the other doctors, saying “Many patients will simply hear what is said about them and say nothing. But some, like Andrew here, will ask questions. You must be prepared to explain to them, in layman’s terms, just exactly why they are there and what treatment they are receiving.” He then proceeded to do just that for me. I was told I would now, following my heart attack (this was back in 2013) be taking a few more tablets. I foolishly asked him how long I’d be taking this extra medication and he, with a slight smile, said “always”. But it was good to know. I also know that when it comes to talking with others we can so easily use shortcuts, not always considering that others may not know or have the same interests as us and one example I can share relates to my former employment with British Telecom. My engineering colleagues there would often use three-letter abbreviations (TLA’s) in their work and one that I soon learned was ‘NDT’, short for No Dial Tone. Then I became friends with a Royal Air Force engineer, where I learned that to him, ‘NDT’ was short for Non-Destructive Testing! Abbreviations are fascinating…
The Third Degree.
There are several tales about the origin of ‘the third degree’, a saying commonly used for long or arduous interrogations. One theory argues the phrase relates to the various degrees of murder in the criminal code, yet another credits it to Thomas F. Byrnes, a 19th-century New York City policeman who used the pun ‘Third Degree Byrnes’ when describing his hard-nosed questioning style. In truth, the saying is most likely derived from the Freemasons, a centuries-old fraternal organisation whose members undergo rigorous questioning and examinations before becoming ‘third degree’ members or ‘master masons’.