Consider this scenario: You wake up in your condo and pop a couple of Eggo waffles in the toaster-oven. You scroll through your phone, looking for info about a preso you're supposed to sit in on. There it is – along with a photo and a heads-up about a product demo. Memo to self, you think: Must schedule convo about a resto reso for a baby shower. Yes, Margo's preggo!

Hey, presto: You've used thirteen words ending in -o, including one brand name, nine truncated nouns, one colloquialism, one word borrowed from Italian, and one pet name. And it's only 7 a.m.

Eggo frozen waffles, introduced in 1953.

English loves its o-ending words with a curious fervor, considering how seldom they occur naturally in our mother tongue. (Some exceptions: the verb go, from Old English; fro, a Middle English word meaning "from" that's now encountered mostly in the quaint phrase "to and fro"; and the interjection hello or hallo, which we've had since the 16th century.) For centuries, we've made up for that lack by importing or coining words that end in o. And we've used an ingenious array of tricks to do so.

Latin words borrowed from religion, philosophy, or medicine were the earliest o-suffixed imports. Old English had credo (a belief or creed); Middle English had ergo (therefore) and, thanks to the Black Death, bubo (an inflamed swelling).

War and trade introduced English-speakers to new -o words from Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese: presto (from 1598 on), manifesto (1620), politico (1630), cargo (1657), and a sheaf of musical and theatrical words, including soprano, contralto, scenario, concerto, and pizzicato (all from the 1700s). So infatuated were English-speakers with the -o ending that they sometimes changed spellings and pronunciations to create it: That's how Portuguese manga (itself probably a borrowing from Malayalam) became mango in the late 16th century.

Oxo bouillon cubes. The company was founded in Germany in 1899; the name is believed to have been created from "ox."

The excitement around these exotic imports may have precipitated a new word-making trend: clipping off the ends of longer words to create short words ending in o. The earliest of these may have been plenipo, which was used by the poet John Dryden in 1691 as an abbreviation of plenipotentiary; Dryden may just have wanted to force a rhyme with "show," but the new form proved popular, especially among the writerly set: Richard Steele, Henry Fielding, and Lord Byron all used it. Then along came memo (first print appearance: 1705) as a shortened form of memorandum, which had been used in English since the late 14th century; and hypo, a now-obsolete abbreviation of hypochondria that was all the rage in the 1700s and 1800s.

Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). The shortening of psychopath has been in use since at least 1919.

By then, the -o suffix fad, the OED tells us, "seems to have become assimilated into English phonology," particularly in imitation of Romance words such as stingo, slang for strong brandy, and rhino, which was slang for "money" 150 years before it was an abbreviation of "rhinoceros." The trend gathered steam in the 19th century, as more words were shortened after a medial o, including Anglo, mezzo, and typo. (Typo was originally a clipping of typographer; it began to mean "typographical error" toward the end of the century.) Queen Victoria, of all people, is the first person to have used photo for photograph (in an 1860 letter). Such abbreviations, according to the OED, "probably established an association of the ending -o with casual or light-hearted use which it has retained ever since." It's certainly true about personal nicknames like Margo (from Margaret) and Bo (from Robert).

Still other o-suffixed words came about by adding the interjection ho or oh to an existing word. Heave ho! is an old sailing term, used since at least the 1400s; cheero, a nautical greeting from the early 19th century, evolved into cheerio a century later – a farewell expression that quickly became a British cultural stereotype. Bottle-oh began appearing in the late 1800s as a cry used by buyers and sellers of bottles; kiddo also dates from that period.

Cheerios cereal were introduced in 1941 as "Cheerioats." The name was shortened in 1945.

Beginning in the early 20th century, new o-suffixed words began proliferating, and the trend has never abated. When complete nouns and adjectives gained an o, their meanings turned derogatory: wino, sicko, cheapo, weirdo. When words were truncated after an o or other vowel they sounded chirpy or familiar: info (from information, 1907), ammo (from ammunition, 1911), combo (originally a jazz term, from combination; 1920s), porno (from pornography, early 1950s), limo (from limousine, 1960s), condo (from condominium, 1960s), oppo (from opposition, circa 1990). Medical terms like amniocentesis and poliomyelitis have yielded without loss of dignity to their shortened forms. Meanwhile, Australian English elevates -o abbreviations to a popular art form: arvo (afternoon), aggro (aggressive), ambo (ambulance), avo (avocado), muso (musician), povvo (poverty), preggo (pregnant), and many more.

Corporate-speak has been another productive source of -o words. A preso is a presentation, a convo is a conversation, a demo is a demonstration (unless it's a demographic segment). You might ask to be added to the distro (distribution) of a memo from the devo (development) team, or receive a reco (recommendation) for a resto (restaurant). You can even make a reso, or reservation, at a resto.

Brillo, the scouring pad patented in 1913, claims that its name is Latin for "brilliant." It isn't.

And speaking of the language of commerce, there's a long and successful history of brand names that end in o, from Beano (a flatulence preventative) and Brillo (scouring pads) to Detecto (medical scales) and Zippo (lighters). All of these brands have roots in the 20th century – Detecto was founded in 1900 and is still thriving – but a few recent tech (techno?) brands follow the same pattern. Carto (from cartography) "turns location data into business outcomes"; Twilio (a fanciful name meant to suggest "telecommunications"), a "cloud communications platform as a service." (I don't quite know what those things mean; I'm just the messenger.)

Then there's Rovio, the Finnish mobile-games company that makes Angry Birds. The name has no connection to English rove, I was told by Finnish speaker HugoVK, although the association probably doesn't hurt. Instead, the name is derived from the Finnish word polttorovio, which means "pyre." It seems that even in Finnish, the urge to create new o-suffixed words is irrepressible.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday March 12th, 4:18 AM
Comment by: W Noel B. (Harbert, MI)
Just bonzo!
Monday March 12th, 2:22 PM
Comment by: roger D.
Perfecto.
XOXOXO
Monday March 12th, 2:27 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Monday March 12th, 7:11 PM
Comment by: Melody A.
AW GEE. I worked on the entry above for a ridiculous amount of time, perfecting its' [diagonal] format... and the ENTRY-BOT squished it LEFT!

So this is a-a-a-all that's left!

RIGHT?

> sigh <

right.
Monday March 12th, 9:13 PM
Comment by: Dan F. (Minneapolis, MN)
Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Gummo, Zeppo
Tuesday March 13th, 11:48 AM
Comment by: Joe G. (Lafayette, CO)
Right-o! Spot on. Ozzies love their "bottle-oh" and "serv-oh": Liquor stores and Gas stations.
Thursday March 15th, 5:36 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom)
I loved this article- then I love language - I find the evolution of language fascinating in every respect! My husband says I am a saddo!
Thursday March 15th, 11:43 AM
Comment by: Ellen M.
New one from the dictation and voice recognition community: "speako", on the model of "typo", for transcription errors.
Thursday March 15th, 2:55 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Ellen M.: Similarly, a "thinko" is a mistake in computer programming that arises from a disruption in the thought process.
Saturday March 17th, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Hypo has been recycled and now represents hypodermic needle. "Careful partner, don't get stuck by a hypo searching his pocket."
Monday March 26th, 11:56 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
I just wondered whether there is another trend beneath the o-phenomenon: abbreviations. But of course in those cases the 'o' might be the most pleasant sound, between open (like a) and closed (ee, etc.). Yet, isn't there some tendency towards ['expressive'] shortening in general?

We also have edito, demo, memo - and we love to say 'Ciao' when leaving in Dutch. Three of these are abbreviations...

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