December 2011 Archives

A slash by any other name

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A couple of days ago, I wrote about abbreviations containing slashes; researching that reminded me to mention that there are a couple of different names for slashes, and a couple of different punctuation marks that look like slashes.

diagonal
Apparently a synonym for “slash”; don't think I've ever seen this usage, but a couple of sources (including my dictionary) refer to it.
oblique
Same as “diagonal” in that I don't think I've seen it used before, but MW3 says it's a synonym for “slash.”
scratch comma
I'm certain I've never seen this term before. MW3 defines it as “a diagonal formerly used as a comma,” which is rather, um, oblique. An older dictionary gives a clearer description: “a diagonal stroke used by some early printers in place of the comma.”
separatrix
I've never encountered this word before, but I love it. MW3 says this term can be used as a synonym for “slash,” but can also specifically mean “a diagonal or upright stroke used to separate one marginal proof correction from another in the same line.” I shall endeavor to use this word as often as possible from now on.
slak
The Jargon File says that this is a rare term for a slash. I don't know the context for that; haven't seen it. The same page also notes that in the extremely silly computer language INTERCAL, a slash is called a “slat.”
slant line
Apparently specifically used in phonetics to refer to the slashes before and after a phonemic transcription. Apparently “slant” is also used as a synonym for “slash” in some contexts (according to MW3), but I don't think I've seen that. And one web page says the slash is “often called the 'slant bar' by computer users,” but I don't think I've seen that either.
slash
Presumably so named for its resemblance to a cut, “made by or as if by slashing” (as my dictionary puts it). The etymology of the verb “slash” is unknown; OED says perhaps related to “OF. esclachier to break.”
solidus
Originally an ancient Roman coin. According to Wikipedia, in the UK, pounds, shillings, and pence were abbreviated using names of Roman coins: libra (abbreviated £), solidus (abbreviated s), and denarius (abbreviated d). The s used for shillings became elongated and evolved into a slashlike mark. The term “solidus” now refers specifically (at least in mathematics) to a less-vertical slashlike character that's used between numerator and denominator in a fraction, although it's quite common to just use a slash for this purpose. Unicode distinguishes between a “solidus” (/) (which in that context is an exact synonym for “slash”), a “fraction slash” (⁄) (which is called a solidus in math), and a “division slash” (∕), which in some typefaces may be even less vertical than the fraction slash. (See also Writing Fractions in HTML.)
stroke
I gather this is used in the UK when speaking a string of letters and/or numbers that includes a slash, as in “27 B stroke 6”—although I gather that “stroke” in this context is also used to refer to a hyphen.
virgule
From Latin virgula, meaning small stripe. Originally specifically referred to a small stroke that was an early form of comma in medieval manuscripts. In modern typography, this is the standard name for what's more casually known as a slash; in most modern contexts, this term is a synonym for “slash.”
whack
Computer slang for a slash, according to Computer Hope's jargon pages.

I suppose it's also worth noting that a huge number of people are confused about the term “backslash,” no thanks to Microsoft. In MS-DOS and its successor operating systems, the backslash (\), a mirror-reversed slash, is used to separate components of a path in the filesystem—that is, to separate names of parent and child directories, and to separate a filename from the name of the directory that contains it. However, in almost all other computer contexts—and especially in URLs—the character used for that separation is a forward slash, also known simply as a slash. (Before Microsoft popularized the backslash, there was no need to say “forward” slash.)

But because many people's first exposure to computers has been a Microsoft operating system, a lot of people don't understand that the backslash is unique to MS. So I hear a lot of people try to say URLs aloud by saying things like “h t t p colon backslash backslash. . . .” And sometimes they try to type URLs that way too.

Suffice it to say: unless you're talking about the location of a file on a Windows disk, don't use backslashes.

One other note, unrelated to backslashes: If I wanted to make a comprehensive list of the ways that “/” is pronounced, I suppose I would have to include things like “over” and “out of” (in fractions and test scores, as in ”257/512” or “76/100”) and “per” and “an” (in phrases like “65 miles/hour”). But I'm focusing in this entry on names for the punctuation mark (and related marks). I'm not sure that the distinction I'm making here is as solid as it sounds, but it'll do.

Two-letter abbreviations with slashes

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In English, most of our two-letter abbreviations are written as either two letters by themselves, or two letters with one or two periods.

But there are a few that are written with a slash between the two letters.

If anyone knows why that is, I'd be interested to find out more; TSOR hasn't turned anything up.

But mostly I'm writing this 'cause I think it's an interesting phenomenon, and I wanted to put together a partial list.

c/o
care of. This is the one I'm most familiar with and see (and use) most often.
l/c
lowercase. As used by editors to suggest making a word lowercase. Also u/c for “uppercase,” though I think I see that more rarely.
N/A
not applicable. Almost always written in uppercase, unlike a lot of these. Another very common one.
w/o
without. I'm particularly intrigued by the two-letter slash abbreviations for single words. Note that w/ is often used for “with,” so I guess w/o for “without” is a natural extension of that.
b/c
because. I see this fairly often, but it's always seemed weird to me. Most two-letter abbreviations are short for a two-word phrase; even “without” could be thought of as “with” and “out.” But why would an abbreviation for “because” include the C? I suppose you could break up the word into “be” and “cause.”
w/c
week commencing. I had never seen this before British members of the SH staff used it; I was initially sure it must be a typo, perhaps for w/e, which I think I've occasionally seen as short for “week ending.” I'm guessing w/c must be more common in the UK than in the US.

Wikipedia's discussion includes such abbreviations as r/w (“read/write”) and i/o (“input/output”)—both of which I think I usually see in uppercase—but those seem to me to be in a different category, because the phrase they're abbreviating also contains a slash. In the abbreviations I'm talking about in this entry, it's not clear to me why the slash is there.

Wikipedia also lists b/w; I've certainly seen that meaning “black/white,” which goes in the same category as r/w, but Wikipedia says it's also used for “between,” which I don't think I've seen before. Urbandictionary backs that up (and notes that it's used in text messaging); but then again, the first search result for [b/w between] is a forum discussion in which everyone but the original poster says that b/w for “between” would be confusing.

Which of course is a good reminder that there are presumably zillions of abbreviations that are used in some groups and subcultures without being known to society in general; hard to say where to draw the line. So I don't intend my list to be canonical or complete; just a sampling of some common ones I personally have encountered.

Any other particularly common two-letter abbreviations with slashes?

Nothing Like a Dame

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Was just listening to bits of South Pacific, looking for duets (at Jacob's suggestion), and came across this excellent couplet from the song “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”:

Lots of things in life are beautiful, but brother,

There is one particular thing that is nothin' whatsoever in any way, shape or form like any other.

Who knew that Ogden Nash wrote showtunes?

(I know the lyrics are by Hammerstein. But don't they look like Nash could have written them?)

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