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Word Shortenings
By Solomon Golomb '51

Some words are frequently shortened by phonetic spelling, as nite for night (in niteclub) and lite for light (in lite beer). Some words have homonyms with fewer letters, as sight has cite and whole has hole. Still other words could be shortened by phonetic spellings that are not in general use. We will be interested in all three types of shortenings. However, we are not easily impressed. Saving only one letter hardly seems worth it, and even savings of two letters are too common to merit special attention (e.g., past for passed and mist for missed). We will be looking exclusively for savings of at least three letters.

1. There are two nautical terms that are often spelled phonetically for a saving of four letters each. One is a type of ship's officer that goes from nine letters to five. The other is a part of a medieval ship that is often shortened from 10 letters to six with the use of apostrophes, and a purely phonetic spelling would get it down to five letters. Can you think of either, or both, of these words?

2. Shortening a word by 50 percent is impressive, even if it only goes from four letters to two letters (as know to no). But there is a five-letter word with a two-letter homonym! (They also have a three-letter homonym.) Can you find this?

3. There is a common six-letter word with a familiar three-letter homonym, but the three-letter word is usually capitalized. Can you come up with this pair?

4. There are several common seven-letter words with familiar four-letter homonyms. How many such pairs can you list? (You may also include eight-letter/five-letter homonym pairs.)

Some of the more common savings of letters come from omitting silent gh; replacing gh or ph by f; replacing final -ed by -t; replacing initial wr- by r-; and replacing initial wh- by w-. Two or more of these must be combined to save at least three letters. There are also the numerous examples of irregular spellings, whereby colonel and kernel are homonyms! When Noah Webster decided to create an American dictionary of the English language, one of his simplifications was to shorten the British ending -our to -or. The six-letter labour became the five-letter labor, and the nine-letter neighbour became the eight-letter neighbor; but phonetically it could go to the five-letter nabor. (The Danish cognate is the four-letter nabo!)

5. Make a list of other common English words that could be shortened by at least three letters if spelled phonetically, where the shortened form is not in general use, and is not a homonym.

6. Finally, make a list of shortened phonetic spellings that are commonly used to save at least three letters (e.g., thru for through). Do not include abbreviations that fail to represent all the sounds (such as no. for number, or tel. for telephone).

Follow this link to solutions.

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