I am reading The Rifters Trilogy by Peter Watts and wonder, what does it mean, when the author sometimes uses words with an apostrophe before them? As I have figured, that is some sort of way of making the word special, but what way exactly?

For reference: the text is available online for free, I am talking about the third book in the trilogy, the "Behemoth". If you search the page, you can easily find occurences of 'skin, 'lawbreaker, 'scaphe and maybe several others.


As per the request, here are three use cases:

Clarke turns her head sideways for a better view; the muscles in her neck tighten against the added drag. Erickson's flesh, exposed through the tear in his diveskin, is fish-belly white. It looks like gashed, bleeding plastic. His capped eyes look even deader than the flesh beneath his 'skin. He gibbers. His vocoder cobbles nonsense syllables together as best it can. ...

A comm panel decorates the bulkhead within easy reach. He taps it. "Ambient channel. Grace. How are you coming with those 'skins?"


He dragged her to safety, to an evacuation 'scaphe hovering uncertainly over a station already emptied of personnel.


But her friends had set their sights a lot higher than Achilles Desjardins; they were out to liberate every 'lawbreaker on the planet. ...

Sudbury's senior 'lawbreakers had worked between floors twenty and twenty-four. It had been lucky that Desjardins had managed to raise the alarm before they'd been hit.

  • 1
    Can you post a passage with an example to avoid link rot and for those of us who don't have access to those sites?
    – scohe001
    Jul 15, 2015 at 15:31
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    They're slang terms shortened from longer ones for commonly-used words. 'Scaphe has got to be a short version of bathyscaphe, for instance. And 'skin must be short for diveskin, a word used earlier. Jul 15, 2015 at 15:38
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    ’lawbreaker seems to be a shortening of natural law breaker or something like that; at least, the first mention of it (except for the title of the prelude) is someone who can break the Second Law of Thermodynamics. There’s also ’lock, ’phone, ’scope (probably periscope mentioned earlier in the sentence), ’fly. These are all entirely idiosyncratic. They’re not established shortenings (except ’phone, but it doesn’t seem to mean telephone here). Impossible to know what they mean without reading the whole thing. Jul 15, 2015 at 15:41
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    Also, there are some more common ones: ’em (them), ’burbs (suburbs), ’scuse (excuse), ’round (around), etc. Those are standard and established shortenings that are found in actual speech in English. Jul 15, 2015 at 15:46
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    If it's a science fiction novel, it's set in the future, and part of the fun is decoding the way (the author thinks) people will talk in the future. There are lots of examples one could point to, but the slang in Clockwork Orange is one most people are familiar with. Jul 15, 2015 at 15:53

1 Answer 1


Apostrophes are used to indicate dropped letters in a word. We are mostly familiar with them in contractions like don't and isn't but they can be used in other places too.

Once upon a time they were used to indicate shortening of words by omitting their initial part. It was once common to write phone (a shortening of telephone) as 'phone. Another common use was 'bus (short for omnibus). Both, of course, can now be used as words in their own right.

In your passage the author is attempting to convey that 'skins and 'scaphe are short forms of longer words. 'skin is probably short for diveskin. 'scaphe might well be short for bathyscaphe, but without knowing the work I can't say for sure.


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