A short word on abbreviations

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?

Comments