Q: Prince (the musical artist) popularized the modern practice of using shortened spellings of common words, sometimes using only one letter or number in place of a word. For example, the title “I Would Die 4 U.” But I’m wondering if there are popular examples of this in older English.
A: Prince apparently began using letters or numbers for sound-alike words as far back as 1981. His album Controversy, released that year, includes the song “Jack U Off.”
By the time he released his album Purple Rain (1984), Prince was further into this kind of abbreviating, liberally using the letter “u” (for “you”) and the numbers “2” (“to”) and “4” (“for”).
Cuts from that album include “Take Me With U” and “I Would Die 4 U,” which includes the lines “I would die 4 u, yeah / Darling if u want me 2” and “No need 2 worry / No need 2 cry.”
Prince has been in this shorthand mode ever since, writing lyrics like “4 all time I am with U / U are with me” (from his song “Adore”), and titles like “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore,” “Nothin Compares 2 U,” and “The One U Wanna C.”
As you note, the trend has caught fire in the rest of the pop music industry.
In a 2002 article on the website MTV.com, the writer Corey Moss discusses the popularity of abbreviations and misspellings, suggesting that they make song titles and lyrics “stand out from the pack.”
Obviously, texting wasn’t around when Prince started using this type of shorthand. Brian Morton’s biography Prince: A Thief in the Temple (2007), suggests that Prince’s abbreviations were influenced by graffiti.
But almost certainly the development of email, instant messaging, and now texting has reinforced the use of such shorthand by other pop artists.
This brings us to your question—were such clipped usages around in days gone by? Well, not much, as far as we can tell, at least not until the early 20th century.
Although medieval scribes used dozens and dozens of abbreviations (we’ve written about their use of “X” for “Christ” in “Xmas”), we couldn’t find many early examples of letters or numbers used in place of words that they sound like.
For older examples, we checked the Oxford English Dictionary. But the OED records only a couple of historical instances, many centuries old, of “u” intended to represent “you.” (The OED doesn’t record any of the other Prince-style usages.)
In Love’s Labour’s Lost, which was probably written in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare constructs an elaborate pun in which “u” is a play on “you.”
And another comedy, Westward Hoe (c. 1604), by Thomas Dekker and John Webster, includes a scene in which naughty puns are played on letters of the alphabet—the fifth vowel being “u”/”you.”
But both of these are complicated plays on words rather than the kind of simple abbreviations we’re talking about.
The OED does have citations indicating that the letter combination “I.O.U” has been used since the 1700s as an abbreviation for “I owe you.”
But as we said, it would appear that the kind of abbreviating you mean—substituting a single letter or number for a word or part of one—didn’t really begin until a little over a century ago.
In 1923 the language scholar Louise Pound wrote about similar usages, which she had noticed a decade earlier but had since become more common.
“The tendency toward novelty of spelling has gained momentum in the last few years,” she wrote. “It is now a stock recourse in the coinage of trade names and in popular advertising.”
Her article, “Spelling Manipulation and Present-Day Advertising” (1923), appeared in the journal Dialect Notes, a publication of the American Dialect Society.
As early leaders in the abbreviation trend, she mentioned the products Uneeda Biscuits and E. Z. Walker shoes, both of which got their names around the turn of the century.
She went on to discuss successor products like Fits-U Eyeglasses and U-Rub-It-In ointment, as well as sales pitches such as “Oysters R now in Season” and “R U interested in a Rummage Sale?”
A few years later, Donald M. Alexander of Ohio Wesleyan University defended the use of “u” for “you.”
In a 1929 article in the journal American Speech—entitled “Why Not ‘U’ for ‘You’?”—he drew attention to the ubiquitous “While U Wait” signs in shoe-shine parlors, repair stores, and such.
Other service providers, he said, were using expressions like “U Drive It” and “I. C. U. R. ready for our real estate.”
He also cited trade names including U Put It On Weather Strip, U-Do-It Graining Compound, Wear U Well Clothes, Wear U Well Shoes, U-Bet-U It’s Good Candy, and several others.
“Likewise,” he wrote, “the Wayne County Highway Commissioners (Detroit) have erected large roadside maps at important crossings throughout the county which indicate the tourists’ whereabouts by means of an arrow which points to the particular crossing saying ‘U R Here.” And should you travel into Northern Michigan with Petoskey for your destination you will be informed as you cross this particular county line that ‘U R now in Emmet County.’ ”
[After this item was posted, a reader (@4thEstateX) tweeted to remind us of “Toys ’R’ Us” (1957). The company refers to itself as “Toys’R’Us,” though its logo is “ToysЯUs.”]
Perhaps the most analyzed early 20th-century example of the usage is in the postcard that Denis Breen receives in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was serialized from 1918-1920.
Denis’s wife, Josie, meets Bloom on the street, takes the postcard out of her handbag, and hands it to him:
“ ‘Read that,’ she said. ‘He got it this morning.’
“ ‘What is it?’ Mr Bloom asked, taking the card. ‘U.P.?’
“ ‘U.P.: up,’ she said. ‘Someone taking a rise out of him. It’s a great shame for them whoever he is.’
“ ‘Indeed it is,’ Mr Bloom said.”
The phrase “U.P.: up” here, with its suggestion of urination and erection, has been the source of much speculation among Joyceans. We side with those who believe it simply stands for “You pee up.”
Getting back to Prince, by the time he came along, as u can c, the pattern was well established.
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