In recent years, a new set of words has emerged — words like totes, meaning ‘totally’; adorbs for ‘adorable’; and LOLs for ‘laugh-out-loud’. These words have become so prevalent, they have their own name: abbrevs (short for ‘abbreviations’).
You might think that abbrevs are used exclusively online or in texts by middle schoolers. However, these words are also being increasingly documented in oral speech by speakers of all different ages. LOLs, for example, is pronounced lawlz, lowlz, or lulz and is accompanied by a conspicuous lack of genuine laughter. My research (1) investigates these abbrevs. What are they, where did they come from, and why are they so popular?
First things first, how does one make an abbrev? Typically, the word of choice is clipped, or truncated after the stressed syllable, as in prob < probably, but never probab. Then, for some, but not all, an -s suffix is added, resulting in probs.
Abbrevs can be a bit more complicated than that, though. Sometimes vowels are deleted, as in adorbs < adorable. Some words vary as to where exactly the clipping occurs, like obvi, obvs < obviously. Aside from clippings, abbrevs may also be acronyms (LOLs) or contractions (forreal(s), freal(s) < for real). Yet another group of words tend to be reduplicated, or repeated. Consider cray-cray < crazy and a word impressively both clipped and reduplicated: inappropro < inappropriate.
While abbrevs may seem quite modern, many of these processes are centuries old. Tote, from ‘total’ or ‘totally’ can be seen as early as 1772 (2) and the acronym OMG ‘oh my God!’ appears in 1917 (3). This particular abbrev phenomenon seems to derive from a diminutive, a word formation that denotes smallness in size and often other qualities like endearment or intimacy. English has numerous diminutives, like -ski (brewski, broski) and -sie (tootsie, footsie). A diminutive that involves clipping and an -s suffix results in names like Babs < Barbara, cited as early as 1900 (4). This process continues today, as seen in Prince William of England’s nickname Wills. What distinguishes modern abbrevs is that they affect not just names, but also adverbs and interjections.
The rise of abbrevs at the same time as the rise of the internet may not be completely unrelated. Certainly, the character limit on Twitter or the need to text rapidly on cell phones could result in an increase of acronyms and abbreviations (though words like cray cray are in fact longer than their original counterparts). Some studies (5), however, suggest a possible different factor: the need to mark nonverbal communication through text.
Whereas writing in the past was largely done by one person in a letter or novel, modern media allow us to have written conversations in real time. This certainly explains the creation of emoticons and, perhaps, the popularity of Snapchat, which allows users to attach a face to their message. As for abbrevs, these new adverbs and interjections may allow us to mark both endearment to our friends and also those pesky gestures we can’t get across with usual writing. Isn’t that totes cray cray?
— Kenneth Baclawski, Jr.
Kenneth is a first-year PhD student in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley.
1. Baclawski, Kenneth, Jr. “A Frequency-Based Analysis of the Modern -s Register- Marking Suffix.” Poster presented at the Linguistic Society of America Annual Meeting, Portland, Oregon, January 6, 2012.
2. Miller, D. Gary. 2014. English Lexicogenesis. Oxford University Press.
5. Biber, Douglas & Susan Conrad. 2009. Register, Genre, and Style. Cambridge University Press.
For further research on abbrevs, see NPR’s All Tech Considered.