A short word on abbreviations

Share
Related Topics
When I lived in London there was a big collection of antique shops in Kensington (probably still is) called the Antique Hypermarket. Not Supermarket or Megamarket or Maximarket or any other word that suggests size and importance, but Hypermarket. At the time it was named, "hyper" and "mega" were still fighting it out to be the best prefix meaning "big" or "great". And I get the impression that "hyper" over the years has lost on points to "mega", and that nowadays you would be unlikely to find anything freshly being called a Hyper-anything.

What makes me say this is that young children at the moment can be heard saying that things are really "mega", which has become shorthand for "great', in the way that "ace" and "brill" and "lush" have been in the recent past. This never happened to "hyper". No child ever said admiringly of something "That's really hyper", as they did say "That's super". Instead, "hyper" took a downward path and became shorthand for frenzied and manic, as in "He's really hyper this morning", being short - I suppose - for "hyperactive".

All this is part of the history of abbreviations, which is a study all of its own, and I just wonder if anyone is actually studying it. There are words which are so familiar to us in English that we forget that originally they weren't words at all, just shortened versions of other words, such as "pub" and "bus".

People don't even say public house any more. It's just a pub. Anyone who said to you, "Let's pop down the public house" would sound like a German spy parachuted in somewhere around 1941. The word has even spread round the world, and people in Germany and Denmark would know automatically what a "pub" was. (They might have more difficulty in France, where "pub" is short for "publicite" and means the world of PR. Luckily, they have gender to help them out, and "la pub" is PR while "le pub" means an imitation English drinking place with pictures of the Beatles on the wall.)

Once upon a time, similarly, people must have been aware that "bus" was a smart shortening of "omnibus" and there must have been a time when the two words co-existed, but "omnibus" is never heard on people's lips any more outside the expression "the man on the Clapham omnibus".

Still, at least we remember where "bus" comes from, given a moment's thought. But how about "cab"? What is "cab" short for? Yes, gentleman at the back? Very good. It's short for "cabriolet". And what is or was a cabriolet? Yes, some kind of old horse-drawn carriage or other. But why it was cabriolet and not hansom or brougham or phaeton or one of the other words for a carriage that gave us the modern word is something that only a professor of abbreviations could tell us.

This train of thought was started by my sending off a cheque this morning to renew a subscription to that excellent magazine the Oldie, which serves the double function of acting as a corrective to youth culture and keeping Richard Ingrams out of mischief, and is thus essential on two counts. I marked my envelope "Subs Department", and I thought as I did so what a hard-working abbreviation "sub" is. It has at least three different meanings that I can think of. In the magazine world it means a subscription; in the naval world it means a submarine; and in the world of cricket it means a man who comes on as a substitute fielder and never gets any credit for catches or run-outs, but is simply listed as "Caught sub".

I don't suppose there is any danger of confusion between the three, any more than there is any danger of confusing the three kinds of coke. You might be simultaneously a user of the fuel called coke, an addict of cocaine, and a customer of the Coca-Cola company, but you would go to three very different suppliers to get your stocks, and the problem would not often arise of asking for one kind of coke and getting another.

It might be possible to get into difficulties over macs, though. Once upon a time a mac could only be a raincoat, abbreviated from the Mr Macintosh who had the bright idea of rainproofing things. Since then things have been complicated by the Mr Macintosh who lent his name to Apple computers and the Mr McDonald who sold hamburgers and savagely took to court anyone who suggested that it was ecologically wrong to do so, so it would be possible for someone to think that a Big Mac was a mega-computer and an Apple Mac was a new and disgusting kind of fruitburger.

More of this tomfoolery tomorrow. Meanwhile, can someone tell me why we say Ken High Street but not Ham Broadway or Pad Station? And why there is something called a Big Mac but nothing called a Small Mac?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
Serena Williams  

As Stella Creasy and Serena Williams know, a woman's achievements are still judged on appearance

Holly Baxter
The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea