A man in a Brooklyn restaurant orders a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon, perhaps the pinnacle of European winemaking, a full-bodied and complex wine.
“Cab Sav, you got it,” says the waitress.
These days in the US, the first syllable of the word is enough to convey your meaning, as a glance at a menu will show.
There’s Guac for Mexican guacamole. There’s Parm for Italian parmesan. And there’s Brat for Germany’s bratwurst.
The desire for brevity can be found beyond the world of food too, with plenty of talk of the “vax,” referring to “vaccines” or “vaccination.”
US talkshow host Stephen Colbert used the word in his recasting of Salt n Pepa’s famous hit, with the refrain, “Let’s talk about vax, baby.”
That instinct to shorten words is not new, according to Lisa Heldke, a philosopher at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, whose focuse is on the American pragmatist tradition – and food.
People use monosyllables in many settings and they are not only reducing foreign words to their first syllable, she says. “Students here call the cafeteria “the caf,” which drives our dining service director crazy.”
Linguists have yet to study whether people in the US are more likely to use just the first syllable compared to other nations. But American English is known for its abbreviations – just think of “OK.”
Hedke says Americans tend to abbreviate everything, or give it a nickname.
Considering why people may tend to just use the first syllable of words, she suggests maybe speakers are trying to be concise.
Also, there are social factors, she suggests.
“I think it’s about approachability. We think of short words as ‘friendly,’ as approachable, as ‘fun,’ as ‘not snobby.’ I actually attribute it a lot to (some) Americans’ deep desire to resist anything that smacks of intellectualism,” she says.
“I think it’s also about familiarity, intimacy. If I have a short nickname, it means I am close enough to that person or thing that I GET to be informal with it,” she adds.
After all, people give nicknames to the things that they like.
Many factors are at play, Heldke says. “I think we do tend to make the shortened forms to pronounce them in a ‘middle class white American way’.”
When it comes to foreign foods such as parmesan or guacamole, maybe speakers want to suggest a relaxed attitude to what they are describing, she says.
“Guac maybe isn’t exactly American, but the sounds are more ‘indigenous’ to American English than the sounds in the full word guacamole (which we also tend to pronounce in an American way, of course),” she notes.
The urge towards simplicity may go back even further. People in the US were calling each other “bro” more than a century ago.
But the trend may go as far back as the first lexicographer of the US.
Noah Webster was the author of the 1828 dictionary popularly known as “Webster’s,” an abbreviation of the title “An American Dictionary of the English Language,” coming after his first dictionary in 1806.
He sought a simpler spelling than British English and dispensed with superfluous letters, which is why in the US, people write “color” instead of “colour,” for example. He embraced non-literary terms and colloquial expressions.
He sought a spirit of linguistic unity and clarity and wanted to distinguish the language so the US could assert its independence from colonializing Britain.
His drive for simplicity made sense at a time when people were migrating to the US from all over the world, speaking countless languages and dialects.
Historians have also argued that unlike more codified British English, in the US, people were willing to improvise.
Americans were using language flexibly, speaking pidgin, borrowing from Dutch, German and other languages and creating neologisms.
In 1919, HL Mencken published the first edition of “The American Language.” He sought to sum up the attitude to language, identifying a “large capacity for taking in new words and phrases” as a tendency.
He also noted “its impatient disregard for grammatical, syntactical and phonological rule and precedent.”
That spirit lives on. Brat, anyone?