The Grammarphobia Blog

A lub of butter?

Q: My mother tells me that as a girl she once asked the grocer for a lub of butter, which brings me to my question: why don’t the abbreviations “lb.” and “oz.” look more like the words they stand for, “pound” and “ounce”?

A: Those two abbreviations are short for foreign terms, which is why they bear so little resemblance to their English counterparts.

Our abbreviation “lb.” (plural “lbs.”) is from the Latin libra, which means “pound.” It came into use in English in the 14th century.

And “oz.” (both singular and plural) is from an obsolete Italian word for “ounce,” onza. (The modern Italian term is oncia.) English writers borrowed the “oz.” abbreviation from the Italians in the 15th century.

Two other frequently seen abbreviations, “i.e.” and “e.g.,” are short for the Latin phrases id est (which means “that is”) and exempli gratia (“for example”).

These abbreviations, which came into use in English in the 17th century, are sometimes used incorrectly. Here’s how Pat explains them in her grammar and usage guide Woe Is I (revised 3rd ed.):

“Go ahead. Be pretentious in your writing and toss in an occasional e.g. or i.e. But don’t mix them up. Clumsy inaccuracy can spoil that air of authority you’re shooting for. E.g. is short for a Latin term, exempli gratia, that means ‘for example.’ Kirk and Spock had much in common, e.g., their interest in astronomy and their concern for the ship and its crew. The more specific term i.e., short for the Latin id est, means ‘that is.’ But they had one obvious difference, i.e., their ears. Both e.g. and i.e. must have commas before and after (unless, of course, they’re preceded by a dash or a parenthesis).”

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