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How Clipping Makes New Words

Great tales of English word evolution: From pantaloons to pantscaravan to van, and more.

By
Bonnie Mills, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #401

 

Today’s episode is about the linguistic phenomenon called clipping. Did you know that the word “van” came into existence because the word “caravan” was clipped? Stay tuned to find out more.

What Is Clipping?

Clipping happens when a word becomes shortened because people drop one or more syllables (1) to form a new word. Usually, both the original word and the new clipped word can coexist, as in “doc” and “doctor,” although in other cases such as “cab” and “cabriolet,” the clipped word replaces the original one. (2) English is full of clipped words such as “sub,” from “submarine”; “deli,” from “delicatessen”; and “rhino,” from “rhinoceros.” In episode 391, we mentioned that the funny word “za” is a clipped form of the word “pizza,” though “za” doesn’t appear to be in common use except among Scrabble players. This recent example of clipping doesn’t mean that this is a new linguistic phenomenon, however. This way to form new words has actually been around for centuries. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, for example, lists 42 clipped words that are “in current use but with varying degrees of informality.” (3) The earliest one in this list—“spec,” from “speculation”—originated in 1794. 

Clipped words can also become new stems. (4) For example, you can take the clipped word “fridge,” from “refrigerator,” and add an “s” to the end, which, of course, yields the plural form—“fridges. Another example is the word “cabbie,” which builds off the clipped word “cab.”

How Do You Clip Words?

Clipping a word involves removing a syllable or syllables from an existing word, but you’re not limited to deleting only syllables at the beginning. There are four kinds of clipping: “back clipping, fore-clipping, middle clipping, and complex clipping.” (5) An example of back clipping is “auto,” from “automobile.” (We took away the back of the word.) “Gator,” a fore-clipped word, comes from chopping off the beginning of “alligator.” To middle clip the word “influenza,” get rid of “in” and “enza” and you end up with the word “flu.” To create a complex clipped word like “sitcom,” you remove various parts of the two words “situation comedy.”

Is Clipping Allowed?

As with many other grammatical and linguistic concepts, there has been some debate about how proper it is to clip words to create new ones. Not everyone has been thrilled with the use of words like “pants” (from “pantaloons”) and “pub” (from “public house”). Fowler’s describes how “The practice of curtailing ordinary words was roundly condemned in the 18th century.” (6) For instance, Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift, two 18th-century satirists, were against clipped words, with Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, even suggesting the publication of an annual list to “condemn those barbarous mutilations of vowels and syllable.s” (7) Various 20th-century style guides weighed in as well. (8) For example, a 1917 usage guide disapproved of words like “auto,” “exam,” and “gym.” Even Emily Post in 1927 took issue with “phone” and “photo.” These days, we use these words so much that it’s hard to imagine they were ever controversial. In recent times, grammarians complain a lot less about the phenomenon. Or, perhaps, we should say, “the phenom.”

When Should You Not Use Clipped Words? 

Although clipped words are common these days, we do have a writing tip for you: Consider your audience before you use a clipped word. Think about whether you need to be formal with your writing piece or if it’s all right to be more casual. What is acceptable in some situations is inadvisable in others. 

Think of clipped words in the same way as you think of contractions. It’s best to avoid both in formal speech and writing. People probably started clipping words because society was moving faster and faster, so words needed to keep up. (9) In a culture where we type “cu ltr” and “lol,” we apparently no longer have time to spell out everything. If you’re sending a text, go ahead and use “bro” or other colloquial-sounding clipped words. On the other hand, using “bro” in a business letter would be a no-no. If you’re writing a cover letter when applying for a job, for example, you need to make the time—and the effort—to use appropriate language.  

This podcast was written by Bonnie Trenga Mills author of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, who blogs at sentencesleuth.blogspot.com.

References

1. Dictionary.com. “Clipped Words.” http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Clipped+words.

2. AlphaDictionary.com. “Where Do Words Come From? (4).” http://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/ling008_c.html.

3. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 3.

4. AlphaDictionary.com. “Where Do Words Come From? (4).” http://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/ling008_c.html.

5. Bright Hub Education. Word Formation: Compounding, Clipping, and Blending. http://www.brighthubeducation.com/esl-lesson-plans/59679-forming-new-words-compounds-clipping-and-blends/.

6. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 3.

7. Burchfield, R. W, ed. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 3.

8. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 1994, p. 1.

9. AlphaDictionary.com. “Where Do Words Come From? (4).” http://www.alphadictionary.com/articles/ling008_c.html.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.