Is there a name for the particular kind of term-shortening where a term or phrase is abbreviated to its first component, even if that's not the important/meaningful part?

The most common example of this that I see is "Social," short for "Social Security number." As in, "What's your Social?" An abbreviation that includes the words "Security" or "Number" seems like it would make a lot more sense.

I've also heard "Microsoft" for "Microsoft Word." As in, "I wrote it in Microsoft" or "I fired up Microsoft and wrote a letter."

And "Internet" for "Internet Explorer," though that's arguably a different kind of thing; lots of people don't really understand the concept of a web browser.

Another common one: "wiki" for "Wikipedia." Again arguably a different kind of thing; many people don't know what a wiki is, and aren't aware that there are others.

It also seems to me that the "-gate" suffix, meaning "scandal," is somehow related, though that connection may just be in my head. But it does share the idea of extracting part of a term ("Watergate") and using it as shorthand for a much larger meaning.

I suppose these are all more or less synecdoche. One could argue that "society" for "high society" and "the throne" for "the king/queen" are just as strange; they've just been around long enough to be commonly accepted.

Still, my gut feeling is that there's something more/different going on here than just garden-variety synecdoche.

5 Responses to “Shortening”

  1. Dan

    Oh, gah. It’s escaping me at the moment, but I remember discovering the word for that transformation (or maybe the transformation that preserves the end of the phrase — the memory is hazy).

  2. Shmuel

    Hmm. It might be a specialized sort of ellipsis, but I don’t know offhand what it’s called. Come in for a cuppa, and we’ll discuss it…

    (Another use of this is in truncating Cockney rhyming slang, if that helps any [e.g., “loaf” is an abbreviated form of “loaf of bread,” which in turn rhymes with “head”]. P.G. Wodehouse’s uses of abbreviations — e.g., “eggs and b” — may be relevant as well.)

    I don’t think it’s synecdoche; that works on a more conceptual level, while this is more purely a language issue. Or to put it another way, I think this is a matter of abbreviation, not metaphor.

    I also don’t think -gate is comparable. These days, that’s a relatively straightforward use of a suffix to modify a noun; just how that suffix acquired its meaning is an interesting question, but it seems like an entirely different mechanism to me.

  3. Shmuel

    I’m feeling the need to explain myself a bit further on why I don’t think -gate is comparable. The phenomenon you’re describing strikes me as a form of abbreviation. Both parties know which phrase is meant, given the first word, and the rest is dropped.

    -gate was never an abbreviation for anything. Shortly after Watergate, another scandal hit, and some headline writer or columnist or talking head or… I don’t know who, really, but somebody had the clever idea of playing on the name to label the new scandal. (Wikipedia says “Winegate” was next; I haven’t researched this enough to be sure that this is the missing link, but it would seem to explain everything.) From there, the precedent was established and it was open season, ultimately resulting in a bona-fide new suffix.

    (Complete aside: my favorite may be Russell Baker’s take on the televangelist scandals of the late ’80s: Pearlygate.)

  4. Vardibidian

    As another example, how about ‘mental’, meaning mentally unstable (or something like that, anyway). He’s mental, she’s gone mental, you sound mental.

    By the way, I have a couple of usage spots in the wild that you might enjoy.

    I’ll verse you, meaning I’ll play versus you. As heard in Let’s play tennis, I’ll verse ya.

    Also, identity thefted. One of my co-workers has a son who told his mother ‘I’ve been identity thefted!’ I had thought it was just a sort of malapropism, but then she, in turn, called her sister and told her ‘[Name]’s been identity thefted!’ Thinking about it, it’s a pretty good solution for the problem of turning the noun into an adjective, except of course that there’s no such word as thefted. Or there wasn’t, until recently.


  5. Dan P

    Aha! Found it!


    And, found on the way to that via looking up aphesis, which is specifically the loss of the beginning of a word as in fore for (look out) before in golf, I stumbled on this, which I thought you might like: Your apheresis is zine.


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