You know the situation when you and a friend are talking about someone, and that person overhears you?
After all, why use a whole word when just half a word will do? It’s fewer letters to write, and a whole syllable shorter to speak, thereby saving valuable nanoseconds in our busy, 21st century lives! It’s also fun to play around with shortening words in this way, and there’s a lot of it about.
As usual, this is not a new phenomenon; we’ve been shortening words for centuries. Contracted words such as bye, phone and exam are so thoroughly entrenched in our everyday vocabulary that we barely notice them as such, although in a formal or technical context we may use the word ‘examination’ instead of exam, and might prefer ‘laboratory’ to lab. One of the earliest recorded examples of word shortening is that of gent (for ‘gentleman’), which the Oxford English Dictionary cites as occurring as early as 1564. And we’ve been happily slicing bits off words left, right and centre ever since, leaving a trail of unwanted syllables and letters. Any part of the word could be rejected in the trimming process:
refrige rator(at least this one gets an extra ‘d’ to compensate for the loss of eight other letters: fridge)
So ‘awkward’ becomes awks (/ɔːks/), ‘totally’ becomes totes (/təʊts/), ‘natural’ becomes natch (/næʧ/), and ‘jealous’ becomes jel (/ʤel/). Even ‘emotional’ can become emoshe (/ɪˈməʊʃ/), and ‘casual’ cazh (/kæʒ/).
This is embarrassing but I was totes asleep.
He passed all his exams, natch (= of course).
I’ve got a new phone, my friends are gonna be well jel (= very jealous)!
For now at least, these newer clipped words and others like them have not quite made it into the mainstream, and many people will not be familiar with any of them. There’s actually been an entry for totes in OALD online for a couple of years now; we also have entries for comms and even fam – two more words that can lose their endings in our modern-day, quick-fire language. However, there’s nothing in OALD yet for awks or jel. Will they make it into a future update? And will long, polysyllabic words eventually become a thing of the past? Surely not, at least not for an extremely long time. For now, we can amuse ourselves and each other by cropping some of our words down to just one or two syllables – fab!
Jennifer Bradbery is Digital Product Development Manager in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press. Before joining OUP, she spent many years teaching students and training teachers.