Sunday, October 2, 2011

Clipping Sound, Keeping Sense, Solving Spelling

So, I knew piano was a short form of pianoforte but did not realize cello was a truncated form of violincello. I can see WHY it was clipped--quite a mouthful.

In linguistics, words that are truncated are called clippings (the clipped form is clips). According to Aronoff and Fudeman, "a clipping is a word-formation process by which a word is created by lopping off part of another word, e.g., Will < William" (2005, p. 236).  Most clippings are nominal—about 90% of all clippings are nouns (Jamet, 2009; Tournier, 1985).

The English language includes a number of clippings, such as phone, a truncation of telephone, and cell, which is a clipped form of cellular. At this point in time, so early after the invention, it might (possibly) be well understood that a cell phone is a cellular telephone, but there might come a time when the association is not so strong. The occurrence of the clipped form cell might increase in daily use, even as the occurrence of the full form cellular decreases, until cell is no longer immediately associated with cellular.

There are several types of clippings. The longer the word, and the more frequently one must use it, the more likely that it will be clipped. The most common process is back-clipping, occurring when the end of a word is lopped off, as in exam < examination and glam < glamorous. Denis Jamet (2009), found that about 75% of the 290 English clippings he analyzed were back-clippings. Not as common are fore-clippings, occurring when the front of the word is lopped, leaving the end, as with phone < telephone, chute < parachute, coon < raccoon, gator < alligator, and pike < turnpike. Only rarely do we encounter a sort of fore-and-aft clipping, where the middle of the word is retained, as seen in flu < influenza, fridge < refrigerator, and jams < pajamas. Keep in mind that phrases may be clipped; for example, zoo is a back-clipping of the phrase zoological garden.

Sound and Sense: When a clip is formed, the sound of the word changes, but the meaning, for the most part, does not change, in almost every case (an exception is curio, clipped from curiosity). The clip and its full form are usually synonymous. If this is true, clipping violates the economy principle of language—and it is true. However, most clips tend to occur in a less formal register of speech than do the full forms of the words. So, the clip takes on a nuance of style and register that differs from the full form.

Slang and Jargon: Some clips have made their way into slang terminology, including bro < brother, coke < cocaine, con < confidence trick, etc. Some clips are associated with a particular group of people, and become part of the jargon for that group. Most computer experts are familiar with apps, cyber, Net, gig, byte, and blog. 

Sound and Spelling: If one seeks to correctly spell a clipping, one would do well, in many cases, to consider the antecedent, or full form, of the word. If one knows how to spell gymnasium, then one is more likely to spell gym correctly, rather than *gim. Similarly, if one knows how to spell kleptomaniac, one is more likely to spell klepto correctly, rather than *clepto. 

In this picture, the folks who labeled the sound system used the clip mike, but the other spelling, mic, reflects the relationship to the full form, microphone. The transformation from microphone to mike is akin to that of bike < bicycle and coke < cocaine.  (Thanks to a reader who shared this picture with me, along with the backstory: A guest singer at her church thought the sound system was labeled just for him—his name was Mike!).

Classroom Applications 

Assume little: When teaching new words, if there is a clipped form of the word, teach it at the same time. Discuss semantics, spelling transformations, and aspects of style and register, formal and less formal. Do not assume that we automatically associate the clipped form with its full form--or the full form with its clip. Even at the level of expertise, we cannot make such assumptions.

Case in point: Last autumn I was raking leaves with a friend, a pilot. We looked up and saw an airplane, with its white trails streaming behind. When I asked him what they were called, he said, "They're contrails.” When I asked him whether contrail was a shortened form of two longer words, he pondered a bit and arrived at the conclusion that contrail probably stood for condensation trail (this revelation seemed to interest him for a moment). Contrail is part of the jargon used in aviation.

Note: I suggest that contrails is a clip, because its meaning matches the full form, condensation trail. This contrasts with how a newly crafted meaning is conveyed through a linguistic blend, like Vocabulogic or skort. See prior post describing a linguistic blend--two words smashed together with letters from the middle left out. The "Make No Assumption" point applies to clips and to blends.

Guessing game: Students could guess the antecedent for a given clip, dividing into teams and earning a point per correct guess. Here are some examples: ab (from abdominal), ad (from advertisement), admin (administrator or administration), amp (amplifier), auto (automobile), chimp (chimpanzee), etc. See more examples of clippings

Strategic spellers: Teach student to be strategic when spelling a clip, by referring back to the full form of the word. Also, teach them this strategy does not always work. Unusual spelling transformations occur in some clippings, as with bike < bicycle, coke < Coca-Cola, coke < cocaine, and aggro < aggravation. These spelling transformation are worth discussing with students. Playing the guessing game described above could help students more quickly make the necessary associations when spelling.

Integrated approach to word study: I suggest that clipping be woven into the vocabulary lesson at point of application--when the word has a clip. Help students associate the clip with the full form of the word.



Aronoff, M., & Fudeman, K. (2005). What is morphology? Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Jamet, D. (2009). A morphophonological approach to clipping in English: Can the study of clipping be formalized? Special Issue #1: Lexicology and Phonology.

Tournier, J. (1985): Introduction descriptive à la lexicogénétique de l’anglais contemporain. Paris-Genève: Champion-Slatkine.

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