I remember some time ago learning a word for phrases where, over time, people forget the second (or first) half. So for example, the phrase "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is often shortened to "When in Rome" — which makes no sense by itself, but the meaning of the phrase is still understood. While "do as the Romans do" is still fairly widely known, many of the examples provided were ones where the full phrase is not actually known — only the root of the phrase remains, keeping its original meaning from context.

Does anyone know what the term for this is?

  • Other examples include: “A bird in the hand”, “you can lead a horse to water”, “better the devil you know”, “better to have lost in love”, etc. Aug 26, 2013 at 10:48

3 Answers 3


This phenomenon is generally called an "ellipsis". But this word can also be used to describe a typographical sequence of three dots ("..."), often used to indicate missing speech rather than describe an incomplete saying.

If you want to be more precise (and technical) and avoid confusion, you can use the word "anapodoton".


Thought you might like some more examples: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:English_examples_of_anapodoton


"Abbreviate" DOES mean to shorten in part, but I think what you are trying to find, specifically, is the word for a historic trend to abbreviate certain phrases, which has a history dating as far back as ancient Roman scripts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbreviation#History

Ironically, because it is so prolific in our language, there doesn't seem to be any word at all to describe this historic tendency. The best I can come up with would be just calling it "abbreviation" or, as suggested above, "phrase abbreviation".

If, however, you mean the 'forgetting' of the second part (or omitted part) of the phrase, while the meaning remains...I'm afraid I can't help you there. But you could perhaps emphasize that as what you're trying to find.


A 'short form' of a 'clipped form' or a 'phrase abbreviation'

  • I'm fairly certain this is not what I am talking about. I'm talking about the specific phenomenon which often happens where over time the abbreviated form of a phrase becomes the most common form of the phrase (despite losing its plain meaning). Another example might be "the proof is in the pudding", which I believe was shortened from "the proof of the pudding is in the tasting". That's a good example of a vestigial phrase which no longer makes sense, but not AS good because the wording changed a bit.
    – Paul
    Aug 26, 2013 at 10:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.