Abbreviation & Contraction

First US and UK editions of Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris, and movie poster

We were watching the excellent Lesley Manville in the film Mrs. Harris Goes To Paris (2022) the other night, and I found myself mildly irritated by the punctuation of the title. (This sort of thing happens to me—it’s a curse.)

Cover of Mrs. 'Arris Goes To Paris DVD (1992)

The film is based on a book by Paul Gallico, Mrs. ’Arris Goes To Paris (1958) which was published in the UK as Flowers For Mrs Harris. Quite why the title was changed by the British publisher, Michael Joseph, is a mystery, but they also decided they could dispense with that apostrophe in the title, intended to indicate that the eponymous Mrs Harris dropped her h’s. The first American film adaptation of the novel, in 1992, kept Gallico’s original title, and starred the magnificent trio of Angela Lansbury, Diana Rigg and Omar Sharif. Unfortunately, the 2007 DVD release of that version fell victim to the “inverted apostrophe” horror so frequently perpetrated by the combination of automatic typesetting and inattentive designers—more on that in my post Quotation Marks.

So much for the apostrophe, which is a bit of a red herring as far as the topic for this post goes. If you look carefully at the “Mrs” in the American and British editions of the novel, you’ll see that the American version is “Mrs.” while the British version has no full stop (or period, as the punctuation mark is called in American English). This is a standard distinction between British and American punctuation. What very slightly irks me is that the film version has retained the American punctuation mark—whereas Mrs Ada Harris is about as quintessentially salt-of-the-earth British as it is possible to be.

Anyway. That reminded me of the difference between an abbreviation and a contraction, and how they are treated differently by British, but not American, typesetters. Both are ways of shortening words, to make a part stand for the whole—but an abbreviation, in strict usage, shortens the word by removing letters from the end; whereas a contraction removes them from the middle. So “Prof.” is an abbreviation of “Professor”, while “Dr” is a contraction of “Doctor”. In British English (as you can see in my example), the abbreviation takes a full stop, but the contraction doesn’t. In American English, they all take a period. So in British English you need to stop and think about what you’re dealing with—you can use the contraction “Revd” or the abbreviation “Rev.” to shorten the title “Reverend”, for example. And “Ms” is a special case—it is a word in itself, and not a shortened form, so takes no full stop in British English. American English adds a period anyway, by analogy with “Mr.” and “Mrs.”

Now, a quick look at the etymological connections of the two words.

Abbreviation is of course the noun from abbreviate, “to shorten”, which comes from the Latin verb abbrevio, with the same meaning. Abbrevio is in turn an intensified version of brevio, which also means “to shorten”. (The original version was actually adbrevio, but the d and b sat uneasily together on the tongue, so the pronunciation and spelling mutated with time.)

The related Latin neuter adjective is breve, “short”, from which we get our word breve, designating the accent resembling a little u, placed over vowels to indicate that they are short, thus: ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, ŭ. It is also, confusingly, the British name* for a musical note so long that it’s almost never used nowadays:

Breve note

At eight beats, the breve is too long for a four-beat bar, so we generally only encounter the semibreve, four beats in duration:

Semibreve note

How did a long note end up with a name meaning “short”? Because in the old mensural notation used in the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, the breve was a short note, contrasted with the longa. (Which was long, obviously.) But once old time signatures like 4/2 fell out of favour, these remarkably long notes largely disappeared.

Breve also gave the French bref, “short”, which entered English as brief. As a noun, brief applies to a short letter, giving authority of some kind to the bearer—someone who carried a brief was a breviger. A diminutive form of bref is brevet, also applied to a short letter of authority. It has particular use in the military, where it applies to a warrant that bumps an officer in rank, without assigning the full pay and privileges that go with that rank.

Lawyers have applied the word brief to a summary of the facts and legal precedents involved in a case, and this idea of “giving information and instructions” carries over into the verb to brief—to briefly inform and instruct.

The masculine and feminine version of breve is brevis, from which we get brevity. The word breviary used to mean just “short statement”, but it’s nowadays most commonly used by the Roman Catholic Church, to designate the book containing the Divine Offices—the list of prescribed readings for each day of the year. Someone who is breviloquent is given to short, concise utterances; breviature is an old synonym for abbreviation; a brevipen is a short-winged bird, whereas a brevirostrate bird has a short beak.

Finally, Old French did something odd with Latin abbrevio, converting it to abregier, from which English derived the word abridge, which has nothing to do with bridges.

Contraction comes from Latin contraho, “to bring together”, formed from the prefix con-, signifying “with”, and traho, “to drag”. The related noun, contract, similarly implies a bringing together—this time in the form of an agreement between two or more parties.

Traho, with various prefixes, has given us a whole host of English words ending in -tract. To extract is to “drag out”; to attract is to “drag to”. To abstract is to “drag away”—it can imply the extraction of relevant information from a document, a mentally absent state, or a kind of non-figurative art. There’s a related meaning in detract, but in this case the dragging away is of reputation or value. And while subtract is literally to “drag under”, it also implies the removal of part of something. To retract is to “drag back”, and to distract is to “drag apart”—pulling someone’s attention away from their work, for instance. And something protracted is “dragged forth”, as if someone is pulling the finishing time of a protracted meeting ever farther into the future.

The noun of action associated with trahere is tractionem, from which we obtain traction, the act of pulling. Something that pulls used to be called a traction engine, or just a tractor. The name tractor beam, a staple of a certain kind of science fiction story, was coined in 1931 by author E.E. “Doc” Smith, in the novel Spacehounds of IPC, which was originally serialized (in heavily edited form) in the magazine Amazing Stories, and later published as a book (1947), with Smith’s original text restored.

And I hope this post has briefly provided you with a pleasant distraction.

Cover of Spacehounds of IPC by E.E. Smith (1947)

* In American English, the breve is called a double whole note.

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