Willy-nilly apostrophes and apocope

My fortnightly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues with three new posts. First: Apocope is not to be dissed resumes an unofficial series on different types of word formation. Apocope involves the loss of sounds from the ends of words:

The verb help was helpan in Old English and helpen in Middle English, and though its related past participle holpen survives in some US dialects, the word has otherwise definitively lost that final sound. . . .

Apocope is a term in diachronic (or historical) linguistics, as in the examples above. But it also applies on a shorter timescale to changes that are a sort of elision. Thus cinematograph gives us cinema; popular, pop; traditional, trad; veteran and veterinary surgeon, vet; microphone, mike; detoxification, detox; disrespect, dis or diss, and so on.

I look at a couple of examples of apocope in more detail, and show how words undergoing this change are apt to be colloquial at first.


Willy-nilly word development sketches the history of the reduplicative phrase willy-nilly, which has two common senses: 1. whether willingly or not; 2. carelessly, randomly, haphazardly.

Nill is the old negative of will in the sense ‘to want’ or ‘to be willing’. This pair of opposites often collocated, as in the line from a Celtic fairy tale ‘will she nill she marry him’.

Willy-nilly came about through paired phrases of the form nill he, will he; nill I, will I; and nill ye, will ye. As Paula Kadose Radetzky writes in her scholarly history of willy-nilly (PDF), ‘all of the finite clause types of the form will [x], nill [x] collapsed into the expression willy-nilly, and it took on the form of an adverb.’ Her paper shows how this led to some ambiguity on account of the pronouns disappearing.

Read the rest for more on the divergent meanings of willy-nilly, and how reduplication might have affected its semantic shift.


Finally, Apostrophe do’s, dos and don’ts reflects on a recent kerfuffle over apostrophes being officially removed from street signs in Cambridge before being unofficially, then officially, reinstated.

Noting the different and changing styles of different authorities (do’s and dos, 1950’s and 1950s), and the extreme rhetoric and dire warnings from certain quarters, I advise equanimity and flexibility in our attitudes to this contentious mark:

This kind of variation is a normal part of the great sprawl of English usage. As a proofreader and editor I apply contemporary standards of correctness – and, where these vary, consistency and adherence to a regional or house style. As a reader I wince at its–it’s confusion – especially in formal contexts, where, as Michael notes, it can diminish authority.

But I don’t get worked up over apostrophes dropped from street signs or added to grocers’ signs. I wouldn’t lose sleep if they were abandoned altogether, though that would be easier said than done, and some apostrophes are useful for avoiding ambiguity.

Are you an apostrophe activist or a disinterested observer? Maybe you’ll even be moved to rhyme about it, as some have done in the comments.

Your thoughts in any form, on this or the other posts, are welcome. Older articles on word lore and language usage are available in the archive.


13 Responses to Willy-nilly apostrophes and apocope

  1. Irene Taylor says:

    Speaking of disinterested observers…today I heard a TV commentator say that she’d be extremely disinterested in eating a particular dish on a popular cooking show. Took me back to the early-middle sixties and Chook Fowler (the best English teacher ever) drumming all these little points of grammar/vocabulary/English usage into our little heads. So I’m probably more of an activist than otherwise. Misplaced apostrophes cause hiccups in my reading – and I bet I’m not the only one. Since good communication is the responsibility of the sender, rather than the receiver, I’m sorry that the Chook Fowlers of the world seem to have disappeared. Or maybe become disinterested observers.

  2. alexmccrae1546 says:

    As an avid amateur photographer, in my casual readings on the subject, particularly on online social media sites, I often will see the attenuated version of photographer, i.e., “photog”. I occasionally use it myself in say back-and-forth e-mails if the subject of photography arises. Don’t know if it’s here to stay, or just an ephemeral cultural phenomenon.

    The word “pol”, in Washington Beltway media circles used as a short-form for “politician”, seems to have become fairly common, usage-wise, and widely accepted within the political journalistic fraternity. I find it too close in spelling to “poll”, as in political poll, and so tend to use “pol” rather sparingly. Never in face-to-face communication, but sometimes online.

  3. Clodagh says:

    Very interesting post, thanks! I’ve always found CSI to be great for compressing language when time is at a premium. ‘Perps’, ‘vics’ and ‘susps’ are among the examples that have tickled me in the past. Well, I suppose Horatio has far too many more important things in hand to be saying whole words.
    I’ve sometimes felt that as well as the colloquial tendency to shorten words that you mention, this kind of apocope, and the kind Alex refers to, can sometimes be deliberately intended to suggest special insider knowledge or membership of an in-group on the part of the speaker.

  4. Stan says:

    Irene: Disinterested is an interesting case. I find the distinction between it and uninterested useful in my own usage, but given the two words’ tangled histories I’m not bothered when people use disinterested to mean “not interested”. Misplaced apostrophes are apt to make me wince when they occur in edited prose, but I don’t demand the same standards of casual usage.

    Alex: Those are good examples. I use pol and photog very seldom, but I see them fairly often online – especially pol, which occurs a lot in compound phrases. I don’t think its similarity to poll would put me off using it if I were already inclined to.

    Clodagh: Thank you! I don’t watch CSI but I’ve come across the same and similar truncations in other detective shows and fiction – except for susps, which is new to me and strikes me as slightly tricky. That’s a good point about their function as insider terms: apocope definitely shows up in professional and social jargon.

  5. astraya says:

    I suppose the way to greet a number of suspects simultaneously is:
    ‘Sup susps?’.
    Criminal Minds has an abbreviation ‘unsub’ or ‘unknown subject’.

  6. Roger says:

    The apostrophe-possessive could disappear; German, for ex, never had it.

    • Alan Gunn says:

      Ah, but it’s beginning to get one. Been to Germany lately? I blame McDonald’s. You see it on signs, and not just when the name is English. They even have a name for it: the Idiotenapostroph.

  7. Roger says:

    I’ve heard that the French actually know the name of the wretch who brought in their acute, grave, and other marks.

  8. If I had continued the discussion in the comments of the willy-nilly article, I would have listed the examples that came to mind when I was formulating my thoughts. I decided that wasn’t appropriate on the Macmillian blog, but I think it’s better here.

    My first example concerned security advice, and was as prototypical a usage as one might see: “don’t just give out your password to everyone willy-nilly“. Note the iterative process: meet someone, give them your password, meet someone else, give them your password. I don’t think it’s possible to give your password to a single person willy-nilly.

    I then considered a related example, this time advice on writing: “don’t just write down every thought that comes to mind willy-nilly” (btw I see Alec has restrained himself very well). Again, there is iteration: think of something, write it down, repeat.

    At some point I considered “drive around willy-nilly” and decided this too evokes iteration: drive to an intersection, choose a random direction, repeat. If you’re on your legs, “wander around willy-nilly” could be either iterative or continuous, but continuous — as Newton would have said — is just iterative taken to a limit, and I did find it less prototypical in that case.

    Later I heard someone on a podcast use “willy-nilly” in a context involving events that occur simultaneously rather than iteratively, which made me think for a moment, but it wasn’t hard to fit this into my sense that the most prototypical cases involve repetition and the further one drifts from the notion of repetition the less prototypical the usage becomes.

    So that is what I offer in support of my perception that “willy-nilly” generally evokes repetition, and that it’s closer to “indiscriminantly” than “carelessly”.

    • Leif says:

      Not bothered about apostrophes struck from street signs. They should be banned from shop signs and taxis outright, given their haphazard employment anyway. Prose is a different matter or course.

  9. Stan says:

    astraya: Unsub is good, and would be hard to guess without context. I’ve also seen it used as a verb, meaning unsubscribe.

    Roger: Yes. Though apparently it’s fashionable for some to add a possessive apostrophe in German, thereby aping English. You can imagine what the purists think.

    Adrian: Very interesting; thanks for elaborating. I see what you’re getting at with the implication of iteration, and I agree that carelessly isn’t a close synonym, for me anyway; haphazardly is a better match.

    Leif: Edited prose certainly is. As for bans, I figure you’re being tongue-in-cheek; enforcement would be impossible and futile.

    • BTW, I apologise for misspelling Alex’s name … yesterday was a long day and I was tired. :-)

    • One other thing: the difference with haphazardly is that it has a connotation of intermittently that willy-nilly does not: to wander around haphazardly suggests that some of the time you’re sleeping under a tree. So I’m sticking to my choice of indiscriminantly.

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