The Grammarphobia Blog

A not so nutso usage

Q: In the UK and Australia, people have a habit of shortening words and ending them with “o” – “aggro” (aggravation), “rego” (registration), “Jacko” (Michael Jackson). What’s up with this?

A: It turns out that a Swedish linguist, Mikael Parkvall, has done some interesting research into these colloquial and slang words ending in “o.”

He found them not only in British, Australian, and American English, but also in German, French
(“-aud,” “-eau,” etc.), Danish, Icelandic, Dutch, Swedish, and Finnish.

In a posting to the Linguist List, the American Dialect Society’s mailing list, Parkvall writes that these are generally two-syllable words. And with the exception of nicknames – like “Jacko” – they often have negative connotations.

Some of these words, Parkvall says, are clipped versions of longer words that already include the “o,” as in “psycho” (for “psychopath”), “typo,” (“typographical error”), and “klepto” (“kleptomaniac”).

Other clipped examples are “nympho” (“nymphomaniac”), “slo-mo” (“slow motion”), “schizo” (“schizophrenic”), “homo” (“homosexual”), “promo” (“promotion”), and “demo” (“demonstration”).

(Parkvall doesn’t include “auto,” “hippo,” and many other clipped words that are standard English by now.)

In another type of “o” word, the letter has been added to the first syllable of a noun or adjective to create an agent noun (meaning roughly “one who is” or “one who does”).

Examples include “cheapo,” “sleazo,” “sicko,” “weirdo,” “fatso,” “wacko,” “nutso,” “creepo,” “pervo,” “pinko,” “bizarro,” and “wino.”

In case you’re thinking of the Marx Brothers (and how can you not?), Parkvall mentions that their choice of stage names may have been influenced by popular vaudeville clowns who used the Italian masculine “o” ending.

He even includes possible derivations: Groucho, “he who is grouchy”; Harpo, “he who plays the harp”; Chico, “he who chases women (‘chicks’)”; and Gummo, “he who wears rubber-soled shoes.” As for Zeppo, the origin of the stage name isn’t certain, but his older brother Groucho said he was named after the zeppelin.

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