9

The word formation process that yielded the word coon is called (fore-)clipping:

raccoon > coon

Other examples of fore-clipping include: bot (robot), chute (parachute), roach (cockroach), coon (raccoon), gator (alligator), phone (telephone), pike (turnpike), varsity (university), net (Internet).

For some of these examples, the clipping simply reverts a previous compounding: notably, it preserves existing word stems.

But not for raccoon, which comes from Algonquian arahkun: there does not seem to be anything to revert, and the word simply becomes one syllable shorter.

Similarly, bot does not preserve word stems: robot derives from robota (forced labor), which in turn (reportedly) derives from PIE *orbh-.

I wonder whether there is a driving force that helped establish these words as lexical units (such as, a strong preference for one-syllable words), and whether there is a pattern for how words such as these can be born, or whether they emerged and caught on by mere chance.

  • 1
    Roach and gator also do not preserve the original morphemes. – sumelic May 5 '15 at 16:35
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    There's nothing special here about roots. If a syllable is unstressed, there is likelihood it would be dropped in English in informal speech. It is just coincidence that the examples at that wiki page on clipping tend to be recognizable roots. Also, as @tom notes, 'coon' is now often heard as a pejorative and so might be considered taboo. – Mitch May 5 '15 at 17:13
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    Because "rack" would mean something different. – Greg Lee May 5 '15 at 18:20
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    @jamesqf: That software "bot" originated from software "robot" (that's why the file robots.txt is named the way it is) and people have been referring to hardware robots as bots for quite a long time now (perhaps inspired by the clipping of android to droid in star wars?) – slebetman May 6 '15 at 5:41
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    It's a word because people use it as a word, just like all the other words. – curiousdannii May 6 '15 at 10:26
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Native speakers often know nothing about the derivation of words they use. Who knew that raccoon was an Algonquin word?

Daily or otherwise frequent encounters with the object referred to by the noun probably has a lot to do with the clipping.

A person who has nothing to do with robots (who doesn't make them, who doesn't read sci-fi books about them, who doesn't spend any time on the internet to speak of)—an elderly dairy farmer in Iowa, perhaps— is not likely to refer to a robot as a bot. And an investment banker on Wall Street, say, is far less likely to use the word gator than someone living on the bayou.

These clipped forms can eventually make their way into the general vocabulary in a number of ways. There are lots of TV shows, for example, about alligators these days.

  • The only place where I heard the words 'roach', 'gator' and 'chute' were crime and action TV series... – Lucky May 5 '15 at 17:01
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    +1 for daily and frequent encounters. In my world, a "brake press" is a "brake", a "progressive die" is a "prog die", a "potentiometer" is a "pot", a "proximity switch" is a "prock switch", etc. This is the same process that made "copper" [policeman] into "cop" and "omnibus" into "bus". – Mike May 6 '15 at 1:19
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    @Mike Although depending on what sources you use, "copper" and "cop" might have happened the other way round: english.stackexchange.com/questions/81451/… – Matthew Steeples May 6 '15 at 8:46
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    @Lucky - You've led a rather sheltered life. Go into a store, down the bug spray aisle, and you will find "Ant and Roach Killer". – Hot Licks May 6 '15 at 21:12
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    @HotLicks I agree about the first part :-) as for the second, I would love to but I don't live in an English speaking country... I just wanted to agree with the idea that the TV is a means of introducing new words into the (spoken) language. – Lucky May 6 '15 at 21:44

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