What Is Aphesis?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Person writing thank you letters
"Thank you" is an example of aphesis, the shortening of a word or phrase, which in this case was originally "I thank you". Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Aphesis is the gradual loss of a short unstressed vowel at the beginning of a word. Its adjective form is "aphetic." Aphesis is a type of aphaeresis or apheresis, a noun describing the loss of a sound or syllable from the beginning of a word; the opposite of aphesis is prothesis. You can compare aphesis to apocope and syncope, which also describe sound emission.

Definition

"Aphesis" is derived from the Greek meaning "to let go." This phenomenon is more common in everyday speech than formal English, but many aphetic word forms have also entered the vocabulary of standard English. In "International English Usage," Loreto Todd and Ian F. Hancock observed that while clipping "tends to be rapid and usually applies to the loss of more than one syllable," aphesis is "thought to be a gradual process." 

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary notes that the first known use of "aphesis" was in 1850, and provides this definition: "Aphaeresis consisting of the loss of a short unaccented vowel (as in lone for alone)."

However, it may be more helpful to look at examples of how aphesis came into use, as Julian Burnside did in "Wordwatching: Field Notes from an Amateur Philologist" when he observed: "Cute is an aphetic form of acute; longshore is the truncated form of alongshore. This explains the American usage longshoreman for our [Australian] stevedore. Stevedore is itself an aphetic adaptation of the Spanish estivador, which derives from estivar: to stow a cargo."

Aphesis as an Intensifier

Kenneth G. Wilson, in "The Columbia Guide to Standard American English," explained that aphesis is often used to "intensify" or emphasize a word or term: "[As an adverb and intensifier] way is an aphetic form of away; it used to be printed 'way with an apostrophe, but is rarely so today. It means 'a great distance' or 'all the way,' as in We were way off the mark and We went way to the end of the trolley line." Wilson provided these examples of aphesis in everyday conversation, "She was way underprepared" and "You are 'way' out of line in making that point."

See a few more examples of aphesis as an intensifier from different writers below.

  • Andrew Klavan in "The Long Way Home": "I was tired—way tired. I had been on the road—on the run—I don't know—several weeks—a long time."
  • Sarah Mlynowski, in "Frogs and French Kisses" in 2006: "I'm really way too lazy to try to locate all those ingredients."
  • Robert Hartwell Fisk in "Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English": "The widespread, if witless, use of 'way' to mean 'much' or 'far,' 'very' or 'especially' reveals how people favor simplicity over precision, easiness over elegance, popularity over individuality."

In these uses, you would never use the term "way" in a manner that is not shortened. For example, you would never say, "You are 'away' out of line," even though the term is actually "You were 'away' out of line" meaning "You were 'far' out of line."

How Aphesis Is Used

Some ascribe a completely different definition to aphesis than those supplied by dictionaries and linguists. The late journalist and author William Saphire referred to aphesis as a doppelganger, a kind of stand-in for more traditional terms and phrases:

"David Brinkley welcomed Vice President Al Gore on his Sunday morning ABC program with a cordial 'Thank you for coming.' Mr. Gore—as so many guests now do—answered with the aphetic 'thank you' with a slight emphasis on the you. 'You're welcome used to be the standard response to thank you,' writes Daniel Kocan of Orlando, Fla. 'Now thank you is the stock response to thank you. Since when, and why? Can you explain this recent doppelganger phenomenon?'"

Safire described aphesis not just as a shortening of another term, but as a replacement for that term, noting that the use of "thank you" as a response to "thank you" has become a sort of verbal shorthand—an aphetic use—for what would have been the more traditional and courteous response of "you're welcome."

Despite Saphire and others bemoaning of the uses of aphesis, the shortening of terms—or even the replacement of phrases—is likely to remain a fixed part of our language for the foreseeable future.

Sources

  • Aphesis.” Merriam-Webster.
  • Burnside, Julian. Wordwatching: Field Notes from an Amateur Philologist. Scribe, 2013.
  • Fiske, Robert Hartwell. Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English: a Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling: with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists. Scribner, 2011.
  • Longshoreman.” Merriam-Webster.
  • Mlynowski, Sarah. Frogs & French Kisses: Magic in Manhattan Bk. 2. Delacorte Press, 2006.
  • Safire, William. "On Language: Let 'Er Rip." The New York Times, November 28, 1993.
  • Todd, Loreto, and Hancock, Ian F. International English Usage. Routledge, 1990.
  • Wilson, Kenneth G. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. Columbia University Press, 2006.
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Aphesis?" ThoughtCo, May. 10, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-aphesis-words-1689112. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, May 10). What Is Aphesis? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-aphesis-words-1689112 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Aphesis?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-aphesis-words-1689112 (accessed July 25, 2021).