If you've ever quenched your thirst with WTRMLN WTR, shopped for jeans from GRLFRND or BLK DNM, or considered buying a MVMT watch, congratulations: You've sojourned in the Consonant Continent, where brand names are breathlessly vowel free and yet — somehow — all-caps yell-y.
You may have noticed, as you perused bridal gowns at BHLDN or scanned the menu at Manhattan's KTCHN, that even if you found these names a bit silly, you didn't have a lot of trouble figuring out how to pronounce them. Your brain supplied the necessary vowel sounds in Watermelon Water, Girlfriend, Black Denim, Movement, Beholden, and Kitchen, even though your eyes didn't see the missing vowels.
These brand names and others like them — I've collected many on a Pinterest board — are a relatively recent phenomenon. But omitting vowels in English has been popular or necessary at different times throughout history and for different purposes.
Linguistically, vowels are essential. Our very word vowel comes from the Latin vocalis, which is related to vox: "voice." Without vowel sounds — a, e, i, o, and u — we can't give voice to our words. A consonant, on the other hand (the other vocal cord?), is literally a "with-sound": It's any alphabetic element that isn't a vowel. "Consonants were thought of as sounds that are produced only together with vowels," notes the Online Etymology Dictionary. Sure, we can sputter "b-b-b-b…", but eventually we'll need a vowel sound to complete the utterance. ("B-b-b-but, baby! BHLDN's the best for you!")
Things are different in written languages, which have been around for much less time than spoken language. Indeed, some written languages hardly bother with vowels at all. Written Hebrew and Arabic, for example, use diacritics — little lines and dots above, below, or within letters — to indicate vowels. Once you've mastered reading and writing you can dispense altogether with the vowel indicators. (The exception is the first letters of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets, aleph and alif, respectively, which are pronounced as vowels, although their sound, like that of a in English, is variable. There are also special guttural vowels with no English equivalents.) A consonantal alphabet like those of Hebrew and Arabic is called an abjad — a word coined from the first three letters of the Arabic alphabet.
In English, we've often omitted vowels when space or time were tight. Take stock symbols, which identify publicly traded companies and which were originally kept as short as possible — no more than four characters for US stock exchanges — to save room on physical ticker tapes. As a result, many companies' symbols are vowel-less: Target is TGT, Walmart is WMT, Microsoft is MSFT. That bridal-wear company BHLDN? Its parent company, Urban Outfitters, is represented on NASDAQ as URBN. Thanks for that lone vowel, URBN!
In the 19th century, the development of telegraphy, in which messages had to be hand-entered with Morse Code, gave rise to many vowel-less abbreviations, some of which we still use: svl for "several," fwd for "forward," mgr for "manager." "Abbreviations are usually made by dropping the vowels," counseled the introduction to a list of telegraph abbreviations published in 1901, while conceding that other abbreviations "are quite arbitrary."
Shorthand systems, which have been used since ancient Greece for note taking, have frequently relied on vowel dropping. Some shorthands, such as the Pitman and Gregg systems, use squiggles and lines, but one modern system, Speedwriting, which was developed in the 1920s by shorthand teacher Emma B. Dearborn, uses compressed versions of real words. The compression is often achieved by dropping vowels.
More recently, internet conventions rather than the desire for a gd jb have driven the vowel-less trend. Early SMS (short message service) technologies, like telegrams, charged by the word, so texters had to be creative — and brief. "Textese," like telegraphese, often omits vowels: dctnry, kybrd, nvm (dictionary, keyboard, never mind). These compressions persisted in informal written English even after early cost and message-length restrictions were relaxed.
Vowel-dropping can also be a strategy for securing an internet domain. Is the URL Dermatology.com already taken? Here's an idea: Go with DRMTLGY.com! Caveat: You may be able to buy that domain name cheaply, but as trademark lawyer Alexandra J. Roberts pointed out on Twitter, with or without vowels, "dermatology" is still a generic term and thus unlikely to gain legal protection.
The vowel-less trend has a playful, even childlike quality, linguist John McWhorter said in a 2018 interview with the New York Times. "This business of leaving out the vowels and leaving you to wonder how to pronounce something, it channels this kid-ness in a way — like saying 'because science,' or the way we're using -y, when we say something like, 'well, it got a little yell-y.'" (Mea culpa, Professor McWhorter.)
The more we're exposed to words with dropped vowels, McWhorter went on, the more we get used to them and fill in the gaps. That's sometimes true, but not always. To see what I mean, try this Reader's Digest quiz: How many names of US states can you recognize without their vowels? Gd lck — it's hrdr thn you thnk!