I was writing an article about certain abbreviations in German. Two of the terms being abbreviated were Verschmelzungsfunktion and Vertauschungsfunktion. Abbreviating both of them as V would have been ambiguous, and the author chose to abbreviate them as S and T, respectively, apparently by disregarding the Ver- prefix and going instead to the root forms schmelzen and tauschen.

I started to write “We sometimes do this in English also.” Then I paused to think of an example, but none came to mind. I was surprised; I thought this was not unusual. That was several days ago and I still have not thought of an analogous English example.

To be clear, what I am looking for is:

  • A set of two or more English words that begin with some common prefix like “un-”, “re-”, “down-” or similar
  • The words should be abbreviated to the initial letters of their roots
  • The abbreviations should be short, most preferably single letters
  • Preferably, the example should be common and well-known, but even if not:
  • It must come with a citation, and not be hypothetical or speculative

Is this something that does happen in English, or am I just mistaken?

  • I doubt it matters, but in case anyone is curious, the German article I was discussing was Schönfinkel, M. “Über die Bausteine der mathematischen Logik” (“On the building-blocks of mathematical logic”), Mathematische Annalen 1924, p. 305–316; Berlin, Göttingen, Heidelberg. Aug 22, 2021 at 18:37
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    Although most people would agree that acronyms are distinguished from initialisms purely on whether the abbreviation is pronounced as a new word rather than spelled out, the definitions of both (if I remember correctly) have been broadened to include not just initial letters of components of the expanded versions (and certainly not always letters that aren't salient). So perhaps abbreviations such as you seek exist. (However, I can't be sure at all that second-rather-than-first etc as opposed to first-and-second letters included acronyms etc exist. I think there are some.) Aug 22, 2021 at 18:47
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    I'd say that there aren't all that many single-letter abbreviations, never mind single-letter-of-root abbreviations. Aug 22, 2021 at 18:50
  • Skips the prefix or skips the first letter? The latter is very common (not single letter ones though); can’t think of any that skip an entire prefix, however. There are also a bunch of constants and variables in math and physics that have no apparent connection between the letter used and what it means.
    – Laurel
    Aug 22, 2021 at 20:43
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    The closest we can come, I imagine, is one-letter day-of-the-week abbreviations used in, for example, college course schedules: M . T . W . R . F . S . U — where Thursday and Sunday need to choose letters different than their initials. See One Digit Day Codes. Aug 22, 2021 at 22:01

1 Answer 1


I will stick my neck out and say:

No, this type of abbreviation does not occur in English, because it reflects a manner of formation of (especially) abstract nouns that is common in German but uncommon in or absent from English.

  1. In this specific example the prefix is the same in both cases, but most important it is — ‘ver’ — which in this context does not change the meaning of the root — tauschen, exchange and schmelzen, melt. It is an inherent linguistic feature of the formation of this kind of verb and often adds emphasis or extends the verbin some way (see Appendix, below). Regardless, it is therefore quite natural for a German speaker to ignore this in forming an abbreviation. In English no prefix directly equivalent to this sense of ‘ver’ exists (again, see Appendix). Prefixes serve to alter or qualify the verb. So in a simple mathematical context we might have opposites, increase and decrease, which could be abbreviated by their first letters and certainly not by removing the prefix.

  2. Consider possible English nouns with different prefixes beginning with the same letter. Often removing the prefix gives a word of different meaning with an unintuitive initial letter — displacement function and devolution function, to snatch something out of the air. P and V? I think not. We’d go for something different entirely. Greek perhaps. Again the difference relates to the language.

My final remark is perhaps irrelevant to the question, but the only example I can think of using an internal letter for an abbreviation is K in the CYMK colour model: Cyan, Yellow, Magenta and BlacK. Here K rather than B is used for black as B stands for Blue in the alternative RBG — Red, Green, Blue — model.

Appendix: Linguistic Expansion

The prefix ‘ver’ can have other meanings in German. The Wiktionary entry list three types 1. As in vergeben (to forgive), which is not further explained but is clearly not of the type under discussion, 2. “denotes a transition of the object into a state, which is indicated by the stem”. Examples include verlieben (to fall in love), which derives from the simple libeben (to love). This is similar to the instances in the question and is very common, and 3. “indicating a faulty action” as in verzahlen (to miscount) from the root zahlen (to count).

I do not think Germans would abbreviate examples of type 3 to the initial letter of the root, which is very different from the complete word.

The English words with a prefix related to the ‘ver’ have the prefix ‘for’ and are all of types 1 or 3, e.g. forgive, forget, forswear. We clearly would not abbreviate them in terms of the root.

The only English prefix that I can think of that serves a similar function to type 2 ‘ver’ is the unrelated ‘en-’, although here the root can also be a noun or adjective, e.g. enact, encase, encircle, encrypt. (The English ‘en-’ may have other meanings in certain words.) It is possible that if there were such things as ‘enactment’ functions and ‘encircling’ functions one might abbreviate them as A and C, maintaining a logical connection. I do not know of an examples in practice.

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    Really well written and explained answer. Talking of Xs, what about Xmas , XP and XL, where Christ (a prefix?), experience and extra are replaced with "X"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 25, 2021 at 11:47

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