Anyone familiar with the French title (L’Étranger) of Albert Camus’s famous novel The Stranger, also known as The Outsider, would be right to assume an etymological connection between étranger and stranger. While Old French estrange became étrange in modern French, it lost the first ‘e’ entirely in English, to become strange.
This is an example of aphaeresis or apheresis: the dropping of an initial sound or sounds of a word. Despite its uncommon name, the process is familiar. It’s what lies behind the shortening of especially to ’specially, because to ’cause (also spelt cos), espy to spy, esquire to squire, and alone to lone. As you can see, what’s lost is often an unstressed initial vowel – this is a particular type of aphaeresis known also as aphesis.
Though it’s essentially a phonetic shortcut, what happens in speech tends to manifest in writing. Poets are fond of aphaeresis because it lets them manipulate prosody better. This is why in many poems you’ll see upon appear as aphaeretic ’pon, amid as ’mid and it was as ’twas. Skilled poets control metre with surgical precision, and indeed aphaeresis – from a Greek word for taking away – can also refer to both amputation and the removal of blood.
When linguistic aphaeresis is under way, an apostrophe may stand in for the missing letters, as in some of the examples we’ve seen. Sometimes it stabilises there, as with ’til for until and ’cept for except. (Note that although ’til is an abbreviation of until, till is not – it predates until.) And sometimes the apostrophe disappears outright, as in violoncello → ’cello → cello.
Sometimes the result is two distinct words, as in amend and its aphetic product mend. Ticket comes from etiquette, which once referred to a little note. And did you know fence comes from defence and once meant ‘the action of defending’? Another outcome is that a sound may fade through aphaeresis while the letter associated with it remains as a vestige of the older pronunciation, as with the silent ‘k’ of knife, knight, knock, and knee.
Other examples of aphaeresis include round from around, ’tention from attention, possum from opossum, drawing room from withdrawing room (a room to withdraw to, not draw in), and cute from acute, whose etymology I’ve noted in a post about gender-skewed words. Even that everyday contraction, I’ve, is an example of aphaeresis, according to David Crystal’s Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics.
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