tarp or tarpaulin?

On the erroneously (or is it aptly?) named Yahoo Answers, a yahoo recently asked:
Why do Americans shorten our language - is it because they only have half a brain?
I've heard this one before, and it came to mind when Grant Barrett sent me the following quotation from The Observer (a UK Sunday newspaper; emphasis added):
Barbaro became even more agitated when the vets brought the tarpaulin onto the track. Tarpaulin is used to shield a stricken horse from the crowd.The 'tarp', as it is called in racing, is like the screeching violins in ahorror film: a prelude to a kill. This was the first time, jockey EdgarPrado said later, that he thought that Barbaro might not survive.
Now, you wouldn't have to explain to an American what a tarp is, but you might have to explain what a tarpaulin is. We tend to call it by the shortened name. We, or at least my family, also seem to use tarp(aulin)s for a greater range of purposes. For instance, Better Half was confused when I suggested we needed to get a tarp before painting a wall. He eventually figured out that I meant a dust sheet.

I have three words for the BrE speakers who ask why Americans shorten EVERYTHING: caff, cardie, Beeb.

(translation: cafe, cardigan, BBC)

I'm sure others can think of many more words in reply to the yahoo's question. Leave them in the comments box, if you please!


  1. How about prezzies (presents), piccies (pictures), nappies (napkins?). Though who knows... maybe this is a recent trend and they are just trying to emulate us half-wits over here. Crimbo!!!

  2. Are those really shortenings, though? They're as many syllables as the original words, so one can't say that it involves much less effort or time to say them.

    Most BrE speakers wouldn't see nappies as a shortening of napkins, although historically it is. That is to say, the formal version of prezzie is present, but there is no more formal version of nappy. BrE nappy = AmE diaper and BrE napkin = AmE napkin.

  3. Funny you should mention this: My husband, who is in the States now, just told me he was bringing back a tarp.

    I've noticed lots of shortened words here: snaps (snapshots), brolly (umbrella). They are especially fond of lopping off whole syllables, like in Bicester.

    And then there's the inability to say "around" instead of "round". I just read this in an academic work. But I do think it's cute. I use it when I want to sound British.

  4. Kathy, I don't live too far from Bicester. When I first moved to Oxfordshire and heard what I thought was "BIS-ta" mentioned on traffic news, I looked and looked on the map to find this mysterious place. My "husby" (talk about mangling English...that's what I accidentally called him the morning after we got married, and it has STUCK as a nickname!) finally told me that the town I was looking for was BICESTER.

    Lynnequist -- Off topic a bit, but where in the world did THESE 2 terms come from: moggie (sp?), and sarnie? (Apologies if you've written about these before...I didn't do a thorough search of your archives!)


    1. In Scots dialect, sandwich becomes SANGwich, with the first syllable exactly the past tense of sing.

  5. The etymology of moggie (or moggy is unclear. It's probably from the name Maggy, but see World Wide Words and Wikipedia for some discussion.

    Sarnie is clipping + diminutive -y from sandwich, as it is/was pronounced in some northern dialects.

    Quick tip for finding the origins of words: Put the word and "etymology" into Google.

  6. AHHH...thanks very much for the two explanations AND for a way to get information without bothering you TOO much!!! ;-)

    Have a great weekend!


  7. By the way, he brought the "tarp" back from the States, and it says "tarpaulin" on the package.

  8. Tarpaulin is the more formal term in the States, so I'm not surprised it's on the package. But when Americans go camping, they don't tend to say "Have you brought the tarpaulin?", whereas a Briton would.

  9. Interesting. I've been an (informal) student of Australian colloquialism and "slanguage" for many years, mainly because we seem to be losing so much of it thanks to a monocultural TV invasion. I've found that we also have a propensity for shortening words. (We definitely use prezzies and piccies.)

    For example:
    barbie = barbecue
    arvo = afternoon
    footie = football (as in Aussie Rules, not that round ball thing!)
    kero = kerosene
    meths = methylated spirits
    turps = turpentine (or alcohol)
    sav = saveloy
    trannie = transmission or transistor radio (not wireless)
    pollie = politician
    projjie = projectile
    cray = crayfish = lobster

    True colloquialisms ("As happy as a bastard on Father's Day"; "Flat out like a lizard drinking water") are a worthy subject all by themselves -- and great for confusing my American relatives and friends! ;-)

  10. Bruce, your AusE definition of trannie as a transistor radio is interesting to me because I've always been amused by the two coexisting meanings of tranny/trannie in the U.S., used by two different speech communities who don't often overlap: to an auto mechanic, a car's tranny is its transmission; in the GLBT world (and in "adult entertainment"), a tranny is a transsexual. The latter was the meaning I heard first, so I have a hard time keeping a straight face when I hear a mechanic talking about "flushing a tranny."

  11. My personal opinion is that a lot of Americans say TARP instead of TARPAULIN because they're not sure how to pronounce TARPAULIN. My grandfather pronounced it to rhyme with Napoleon (tarpoleon) which made me think it was Southern dialect, possibly uneducated Southern dialect. I see that that is given as Merriam-Webster's third pronunciation, so at least it's accepted as a possibility. Just saying TARP eliminated any possibility of misunderstanding.

  12. Full disclosure - I'm married to an Australian and lived in Oz a while.

    bruce also mentioned shortening words.
    However, as mentioned with other examples, including in the original post, some of these aren't shorter.

    Re: ""We definitely use prezzies and piccies"
    Same number of syllables, like foottie for football. However, I've never heard those terms used in North America. Maybe I missed the context and it was meant these were used by the Brits?

    I've also got a chuckle out of trannie/tranny. Grew up around lot of people fond of cars ("hot rods"), so some humorous sentences thrown around.

    Re: cray = crayfish = lobster
    Not to be pedantic, but Lobster and crayfish are diff animals.
    Recent discussion forum I read had someone joking bout the American "Aussie immitation" fav, "throw another shrimp on the barbie". Australian respondent said - "we don't call them shrimp, we call them prawns!". However, shrimp and prawns are different animals yet again. :)

    Re: shortening
    A lot of words are shortened in the states. My theory is that it's just for efficiency.
    Just returned from visiting inlaws in South America. Always surprised by the number of syllables required to say something a quarter the number could be grunted out in "Murican" to communicate the same thing.

    My 2/3 cents...


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)