Q: Why are certain men’s names abbreviated in old books and records? Examples: “Geo.” for George, “Thos” for Thomas, “Jos.” for Joseph, “Wm” for William, and “Chas” for Charles?
A: Men’s names aren’t the only ones. Women’s names are shortened in old writing too: “Abig.” for Abigail, “Const.” for Constance, “Lyd.” for Lydia, “My” for Mary, “Urs.” for Ursula, and so on.
Names and other words were abbreviated in old documents to save time and writing material. A census taker, tax collector, or scribe could speed up his work and cut down on paper, parchment, vellum, or papyrus.
Writing material was expensive until the introduction of steam-driven machines to mass-produce paper out of wood pulp in the 19th century.
However, the abbreviating of names and other words didn’t die out with scribes and parchment. Writers now abbreviate in email, texts, tweets, and instant messages.
And some analog types still abbreviate the old-fashioned way. We have a friend in Iowa City who writes only letters for personal correspondence, using every last inch of her stationery and abbreviating like a scribe of yore.
Paleographers, philologists, and linguists have studied the practice of shortening names and other words over the years.
In a 2013 paper, “Manuscript Abbreviations in Latin and English,” the language researcher Alpo Honkapohja discusses the practice in classical and medieval times.
“The two main reasons to use abbreviations are the economy of time and the economy of space,” Honkapohja writes.
He says economy of time “was the more important one in Ancient Rome, where abbreviations were needed for making quick transcriptions of spoken language.”
“In late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages,” he adds, “saving parchment became the driving principle.”
In The Handwriting of English Documents (1958), L. C. Hector writes that medieval abbreviations “saved time and space by allowing the scribe to drop letters from his writing of individual words.”
“A word of which the beginning is written and the end omitted is said to be suspended: the most extreme form of suspension is, of course, the representation of a whole word by its initial letter alone,” he says.
When a writer “omits a letter or letters from the middle of a word, so that its beginning and end remain, the word is said to be contracted,” Hector says.
When an abbreviated name is contracted, the last letter can appear in either normal type or superscript. So a contraction of the name William is seen as “Wm” or “Wm” while a contraction of Jonathan (or John) is “Jno.” or “Jno.” in old writing.
When letters are eliminated from the end of an abbreviated name, the shortened form is often followed by a colon or a dot, but the punctuation is often dropped with a contracted name. We’re using dots in this post for all abbreviated names except contractions.
Several genealogical websites include lists of names that are often shortened in old documents. GeneologyInTime, for example, has a page of abbreviated first names, minus the dots.
And the Treasure Maps Genealogy site has a page that shows how some common abbreviated given names look in handwritten manuscripts.
We’ve had many items on our blog about abbreviations, including a posting in 2013 about the singer-songwriter Prince’s use of letters and numbers in his lyrics as shorthand for sound-alike words.
On a related subject, we wrote a post in 2012 about palimpsest and crossed (or cross) writing, two techniques used to conserve writing material in bygone days.
In crossed writing, a poor or frugal letter writer would fill a page of paper with writing, then turn it sideways and fill the page again with text running perpendicular to the original.
In palimpsest, old writing is scraped or rubbed away from parchment or vellum, so the material can be recycled. Documents made of more fragile papyrus were sometimes washed and used again.