Great tales of English word evolution: From pantaloons to pants, caravan to van, and more.
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.”