Writers Talk About Writing
It's a Number! It's a Word! It's Both!
A friend of mine recently alerted me to an odd type of "word." See if you can guess what the following mean:
Yeah, me neither. These are some examples of a lexical hybrid that goes by the name numeronym. If you've never heard of it, that's because it's a term that's not yet appearing in any major dictionaries. (This also means that there's no registered pronunciation. I'm personally inclined to pronounce it as noo-MER-o-nim.)
In the broadest definition, a numeronym is a word that involves numbers. The term actually covers several types of number-based constructs. For example, one source says that the term was originally used to describe words based on telephone numbers, like 1-800-PLUMBER.
Another type of numeronym is probably familiar — a word in which the number is just a phonetic replacement for some of the letters. For example, there's K-9 for canine, and we've all seen brand names (not necessarily good ones) in which a digit appears phonetically: tr8n.net, Roth2U, Vital 4U, 2nite vodka. The language of texting is big on this type of numeronym: gr8 for great, l8r for later, 1ce for once, etc.
Then there's a type of numeronym in which the number really does represent a number but appears as part of an abbreviation. Some examples are WWI and WWII for those particular conflicts, and G8 and G20 for the economic summit meetings involving those respective numbers of countries. A slight variation on this is the term Y2K, where 2K stands for 2000 of the famous Year 2000 problem that never appeared.
The terms 24/7 and 180 or 360 (e.g., I did a 180) are considered by some to be numeronyms. Whether these really qualify depends perhaps on how metonymously one wants to interpret the term. Similar examples might be 411 for information or 10-4 (derived from radio talk) for ok.
But if you go looking for numeronyms these days, the standard example— if "standard" can be applied to this particular term — is something like the words at the beginning of the article. These are, for lack of a better description, words that use numbers algorithmically. It'll be clear when I show you what those numeronyms actually stand for:
- l10n: localization
- i18n: internationalization
- d11n: documentation
As you can see, these numeronyms are formed by including the first letter, the last letter (optional), and a digit to represent the number of letters in between. There are now all kinds of examples of this type of numeronym: c14n (canonicalization), i14y (interoperability), p13n (personalization), n11n (normalization). Almost all of these are computer terms. (Should you be wondering, the non-numeronym versions of these words are widely used in IT, odd as they might seem.) There are just a few examples from other fields; easily the best one is E15 for Eyjafjallajökull, the Icelandic volcano of recent fame. Supposedly P45 is used as a numeronym for the made-up word Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. (Our own Ben Zimmer mentioned P45 and i18l in a blog post on the Oxford University Press blog some years ago, in fact.)
There's an excellent origin story for this type of numeronym. It involves the erstwhile computer manufacturer Digital Equipment Company. Here's the tale as it appears in the Tutor Gig online encyclopedia:
… the first numeronym of this kind was "S12n", the electronic mail account name given to Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) employee Jan Scherpenhuizen by a system administrator because his surname was too long to be an account name. Colleagues who found Jan's name unpronounceable often referred to him verbally as "S12n". The use of such numeronyms became part of DEC corporate culture.
This explanation is not dated, but discussion of similar terms (like those I listed) suggests that this type of numeronym has been in use since about the mid-80s and almost certainly spread out from DEC to other parts of the computer world.
Some people might think that these types of algorithmic numeronyms are the result of laziness. Certainly there's no way you can tell what any of these terms represent unless someone clues you in. But really it's just a matter of convenience. Consider this story told by an old-timer in the computer industry:
At one point in one of the early meetings, someone was writing the long "internationalization" word yet again on the white board. Since we didn't like writing this long word all the time, someone suggested we find an abbreviation. After some discussion (I don't know if the idea was borrowed from somewhere else), the suggestion of "i18n" was agreed upon and since then that SIG "standardized" upon it.
You can certainly sympathize with the person holding the whiteboard marker. Or for that matter, the journalist assigned to write about the Icelandic volcano.
Shortening cumbersome words has a more contemporary benefit as well. With the 140-character limit imposed by Twitter, people have started to find numeronyms handy in their tweets. The translator Luke Spear recently noted on his website that he was proud of having invented the compact and now widespread hashtag #xl8 to stand for translate. (In this case, of course, the x signifies trans.)
I was slightly surprised to discover that there's one numeronym that I use quite frequently in my work at Microsoft: W3C. This stands for the World Wide Web Consortium, which is the governing body for the Web. This term appears all over the documentation that I deal with every day.
W3C notwithstanding, I don't think we'll be using any of the more abstruse numeronyms in the documentation. But if I run across one now and then, at least I'll know what it's called.