Read ’em and write ’em

Beloved by Scrabble fans, em (/εm/) can mean the letter M or a unit of measurement in typography – hence em dash (one of which appeared just there, before hence). Occasionally em appears as an interjection, an onomatopoeic murmur equivalent to erm or um, while in HTML it italicizes text.

Em with a capital E is a popular nickname for Emma, Emily and Emmanuel, while the all-capital EM is a standard abbreviation of electromagnetic and electron microscope, among other things. Em- is a common prefix, found in words such as embark, embed, embody, emboss, embrace, and embroil.

‘Em with a preceding apostrophe is a common informal variant of them, often seen and heard in colloquial expressions such as “Set ’em up Joe”, “Give ’em hell”, “Up an’ at ’em”, “Stick ’em up”, “Ride ’em cowboy”, “Use ’em or lose ’em”, “Texas hold ’em”, “Read ’em and weep”, and “Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em”. In spoken English the ’em is usually unstressed (/əm/), and is occasionally absorbed into the associated verb, such as in the video game title “Duke Nukem”.

What is curious about ’em is that contrary to popular belief, the apostrophe does not denote the missing letters “th”. In Middle English ’em was an alternative form of hem (an old pronoun, not the verb, the clothing term or the throat-clearing interjection), which was later displaced by them. So ’em does not derive from them; in fact it precedes it.

3 Responses to Read ’em and write ’em

  1. Sean Jeating says:

    Ha ha ha, Stan. Got it! Thanks a lot.

    Until (hopefully) soon.

  2. Interesting post! I didn’t realise that “em” preceded “them”, rather than vice-versa. Language is a curious thing… (Just out of curiosity, isn’t your em dash a little short? I always thought they were longer.)

  3. Stan says:

    Sean: Gern geschehen! Ja, bis bald.

    Doubtful: It is a curious reversal of expectation. I first read about it in Frank Palmer’s book on grammar (another of those fine Penguin publications), and the OED confirmed it.

    You’re right, the em dash should be longer, and I felt a bit bad about calling it that, but WordPress seems to limit their size so I opted for a virtual truth (plus a hyperlink to Wikipedia) rather than another elaborately qualified one. I’m glad to be prompted about it in the comments though. The en dash also seems undersized, and all the apostrophes and quotation marks are curled, but I’m powerless to set them straight! If you or any other readers know a way around this, I’m all ears.

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