Definition of Clipping in Linguistics

Dropping Syllables From Words to Form New Terms

clipping
Deli is the clipped form of the word delicatessen. Other common examples of clipped words include exam, fax, flu, doc, ad, lab, and vet. (Blend Images-Ariel Skelley/Getty Images)

In morphology, clipping is the process of forming a new word by dropping one or more syllables from a polysyllabic word, such as cellphone from cellular phone. In other words, clipping refers to part of a word that serves for the whole, such as ad and phone from advertisement and telephone, respectively. The term is also known as a clipped form, clipped word, shortening, and truncation.

A clipped form generally has the same denotative meaning as the word it comes from, but it's regarded as more colloquial and informal.

Clipping also makes it easier to spell and write many words. For example, a clipped form may replace the original word in everyday usage—such as the use of piano in place of pianoforte.

Examples and Observations

Some of the most common products of clipping are names—Liz, Ron, Rob, and Sue, which are shortened forms of Elizabeth, Ronald, Robert, and Susan, say W. O'Grady, J. Archibald, M. Aronoff, and J. Rees-Miller in their text "Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction." They note that clipping is especially popular in the speech of students, where it has yielded forms like prof for professor, phys-ed for physical education, and poli-sci for political science.

However, many clipped forms have also been accepted in general usage: doc, ad, auto, lab, sub, porn, demo, and condo. The authors add that:

"A more recent example of this sort that has become part of general English vocabulary is fax, from facsimile (meaning 'exact copy or reproduction')."

Other examples of clipped forms in English include biz, caps, celebs, deli, exam, flu, gator, hippo, hood, info, intro, lab, limo, mayo, max, perm, photo, ref, reps, rhino, sax, stats, temp, thru, tux, ump, veep, and vet.

Clipping Basics

As noted, clipped words form through a social process, such as students preferring to use shortened forms of common terms, as noted in "Contemporary Linguistics." The same kind of social forces lead to the creation of clipped words in other English-speaking countries such as Britain, notes David Crystal in "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language."

"There are also several clippings which retain material from more than one part of the word, such as maths (UK), gents, and specs....Several clipped forms also show adaptation, such as fries (from french fried potatoes), Betty (from Elizabeth), and Bill (from William)."

Clipped words are not abbreviationscontractions, or diminutives. True, an abbreviation is a shortened form of a word or phrase. But abbreviations often end with a period, such as Jan. for January, and are clearly understood to be stand-ins for the full term. A contraction is a word or phrase—such as that's, a form of that has—that has been shortened by dropping one or more letters. In writing, an apostrophe takes the place of the missing letters. A diminutive is a word form or suffix that indicates smallness, such as doggie for dog and Tommie for Thomas

Types of Clipping

There are several types of clipping, including final, initial, and complex.

Final clipping, also called apocope, is just what the term implies: clipping or cutting off the last syllable or syllables of a word to form the clipped term, such as info for information and gas for gasoline. Initial clipping, also called apheresis, is the clipping of the initial part of the beginning of the word, also called fore-clipping, notes the Journal of English Lexicology.

 Examples of fore-clipping include bot for robot and chute for parachute.

Complex clipping, as the name implies, is more involved. It is the shortening of a compound word by preserving and combining its initial parts (or first syllables), says ESL.ph. Examples include:

  • Sci-fi for science fiction
  • Sitcom for situation comedy
  • Grandma for grandmother
  • Perm for permanent wave
  • Shrink for head shrinker

As you see, clipped words are not always respectful terms. Indeed, some great literary figures vigorously opposed them, such as Jonathan Swift, who made his feelings clear in the tellingly named "A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue," published in 1712. He saw clipping as a symptom of "barbaric" social forces that had to be tamped down:

"This perpetual Disposition to shorten our Words, by retrenching the Vowels, is nothing else but a tendency to lapse into the Barbarity of those Northern Nations from whom we are descended, and whose Languages labour all under the same Defect."

So, the next time you hear or use a clipped word, do so knowing that it is considered acceptable in English but remember that these shortened terms have a long and somewhat controversial history.