The Grammarphobia Blog

Short stories

Q: John Mortimer’s recent death gave me just the encouragement I needed to reread some of the Rumpole books. I’ve noticed one thing I overlooked on first reading: Horace Rumpole uses a form of abbreviated English. For example, “rota” for “rotation” and “perf” for “performance.” Is this shortening of some words a British practice? Or do we do the same thing over here and I’ve just missed it.

A: The telescoping of words is not exclusively a British habit. It’s popular wherever English is spoken. Just look at “perp,” “dozer,” “ludes,” “ammo,” “con,” “meth,” “doc,” “bike,” “limo,” “deli,” and other Americanisms.

Although “rota” means a rotation of people or a round of duties, it’s probably not an abbreviated form of “rotation,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The two words are related etymologically, but “rota” is derived from the Latin rota (wheel), while “rotation” comes from the Latin rotare (to turn or swing around).

The OED’s first published citation for “rota” used in this sense is in John Ray’s Observations Made in a Journey Through Part of the Low-Countries (1673): “These [councillors] are taken out of the great Council, and go round in a rota.”

“Perf,” a shortened form of “performance,” first appeared as a “graphic abbreviation” in an advertisement, according to the OED. The first citation is from an ad in the Times of London in 1919: “Scala Theatre. Last two perfs. of The Lady of Lyons.”

I’m going to miss John Mortimer and the Rumpole books. I had the pleasure of reviewing one of the later ones for the New York Times Book Review. If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

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