The long and the short of English abbreviations

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The Independent Online

I am glad to say that we have received another visit from the doyen of language experts, Dr Wordsmith. As you know, Dr Wordsmith spends most of his time in the laboratory of language change, ie the British pub, and we only see him outside opening hours, something which is becoming increasingly rare these days as pubs tend more and more to stay open round the clock. So fire your questions now, while he's still here!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, There are few things more bemusing than a so-called Irish supergrass who has got an Italian name like Scappecitti or Scappeccini or something. But that is not his most unusual aspect. That is the code name, given to him by the media, of Stakeknife. Why on earth do they spell it Stakeknife? Every one knows that a steak knife is spelt precisely like that - Steakknife.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Ah! I think that if you had closely studied what you have just written, you would have seen the answer to your question. If you spell "steak knife" as two words, fine. But no self-respecting spy or agent or grass ever uses two words. It's always one word. And if you close up the two words and spell "steakknife" as one word, you get two letter "k"s coming crash bang together. It doesn't look right, does it? Look again. "Steakknife". Nor does it look any better if you elide the "k"s and use just one, as in "steaknife".

So what are you going to do?

You're going to spell it as "Stakeknife", that's what.

Next, please!

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Are there any general rules about abbreviating words? I say this, because there is something odd going on in the world of flowers. For as long as I can remember, names of flowers have been abbreviated at the front end. "Gladioli" have always been "gladdies", "daffodils" have been "daffs" and so on. Another example is "chrysanthemum", which has always been shortened to "chrysanth". Recently, however, I have become aware that "chrysanthemum" is starting to be shortened to "mum". "Fab Mums" was a greeting I saw on a Mother's Day card the other day. Well, I don't think you can abandon one abbreviation and move on to another quite so easily, can you? Anyway, I don't think I have actually heard anyone say this dread word "mum" yet.

Dr Wordsmith writes: Yes, interesting. At first I thought it might be the difficulty of actually saying "chrysanths", with four consonants packed on the end there. But then it occurred to me that there was some truth in what you said: that people don't say the word, they just write it. Now, it pays a florist to write the shortest possible word on his little placards when he sticks them in his vases and pots. Some words are short already - you can't get much shorter than "rose" and "pink" and "lily". But "chrysanth" is twice as long as "rose" even though it's an abbreviation! And it's harder to spell. Not that spelling worries florists much - I have seen some funny versions of "hellebore" and "montbretia" and "berberis", I can tell you! (I saw some of the latter labelled "Burberrys" the other day.) So "mum" is much quicker to write than "chrysanth".

Dear Dr Wordsmith, Floristry is not the only trade where abbreviation is de rigeur. In showbiz, recently, it has become almost impossible to give a show its full name. Famously, 'Les Miserables' is always called 'Les Mis', 'Phantom of the Opera' is always 'Phantom', and so on. Some show titles are too short to shorten - I don't think anyone would bother to reduce 'Miss Saigon' to 'Miss' - but is this a modern phenomenon? Was the 'Pirates of Penzance' ever called just 'Pirates'? Did the 18th century refer to Goldsmith's play as 'Stoops'?

Dr Wordsmith writes: Almost certainly. Don't forget that Midsummer Night's Dream is almost universally referred to as "The Dream". And it goes back further than Shakespeare, back to church ritual. The names of things like The Magnificat, and "Nunc Dimittis", are only the first word or two of the Latin words of the song, used as an abbreviation. "Te Deum laudamus" ("We praise thee O Lord") is usually shortened to the Te Deum. There's no basic difference between "Te Deum" and "Les Mis".

Dr Wordsmith will be back soon. Keep those queries rolling in!