Words at Play

Digging Up the Latin Roots of 14 Abbreviations

You know how to use them. But do you know where they come from?
Last Updated: 5 May 2019

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An abbreviation is a shortened form of a written word or phrase that is used in place of the whole. Although abbreviations can be found in inscriptions and manuscripts of ancient times, the practice of using them significantly increased in the English language during the 19th century as a means to reduce the time required for writing or speaking, and quite a few Latin abbreviations began to be commonplace.

We're guessing that not many people know the full Latin words behind some common and not-so-common abbreviations, such as viz for videlicet. We're here to educate. Some of the abbreviations that we will discuss are most often seen in the footnotes, endnotes, parenthetical notes, and bibliographies of professional writing; others can be found in more casual writing, maybe even in an email or text message. We hope it's not TMI.

calendar pages

When you see the abbreviation c. or ca. followed by a date, it means "about" or "around." It is a shortening of the preposition circa, which has, rather surprisingly, only been in use in English writing since the mid-1800s. When used within a sentence, the abbreviation occurs in parentheses, as in "Shakespeare's Hamlet (written ca. 1599-1601) was published in a quarto edition in 1603."

Circa is a Latin borrowing formed from circum, meaning "around," which, in turn, is from circus, meaning "circle." In the 14th century, English borrowed the word for an enclosed arena for various contests and exhibitions. In the 18th century, circus was applied as the name for the familiar traveling show that is performed in a tent and that includes trained animals, clowns, acrobats, and other entertainers performing in a circular arena.

man comparing papers

The abbreviation cf. comes from Latin confer, the imperative (i.e., the grammatical form expressing a command) of conferre, meaning "compare." English writers borrowed confer in the general sense of "compare" in the 16th century, but that sense fell into disuse by the end of the 18th century.  

The Ladies vanish in the Smother / To confer Notes with one another.
— Jonathan Swift, "The Problem," c. 1704

However, a vestige of it is found in modern confer meaning "to consult," or "to compare views or take counsel," as in "The lawyer and judge conferred about the ruling" or "Let me confer with my wife before I make a decision." Conferre is also the root of conference, which designates a meeting at which opinions are shared and compared.

Usage of the abbreviation cf. begins about the mid-1800s. It is often used in the endnotes or footnotes of researched writing, and generally, it is preceded by a citation of a work that supports a claim and follows a reference offering slightly different or even contradictory information about the claim presented. Basically, cf. can be interpreted as meaning "but compare to this": 

 11. Johnson 1755; cf. definition Webster 1828.

Cf. can also be used in the main body of a written work:

You can see I am a disciple of Laing and his approach, cf. the film "Family Life."
— Pat Preston, Spare Rib, December 1974

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The abbreviation e.g. comes from the Latin phrase exempli gratia, which translates literally as "for example," and it is used in English with that meaning to introduce one or more examples that illustrate something previously stated in order to make it more clear or understandable. 

The article discusses the nutritional benefits of root vegetables, e.g., potatoes, carrots, and beets.

people writing together

The abbreviation et al. enters English in the late 19th century and is a shortening of the Latin phrase et alii (the masculine form), et aliae (the feminine), or et alia (the neuter)—all of which mean "and others" or "and the others." It is most frequently used in citing (as in a footnote, endnote, or bibliography) a publication that has three or more authors. 

In the humanities, only the first author's name precedes et al.

Quirk, Randolf, et al. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman, 1985

In the sciences, either the first three names are listed and followed by et al., or as many as six names are listed. It is best to consult the recommended style handbook if you are unsure. 

Commentators generally discourage the use of et al. and similar abbreviations in expository writing, but usage evidence tells otherwise.  

Apparently John Updike, Saul Bellow et al. were going to welcome me into the fellowship of writers by sending signed copies of their latest work.
— Susan Brownmiller, The New York Times Book Review, 12 Jan. 1986 

In terms of styling, there is some variation. Et al. is sometimes printed in italics, and the period following al is sometimes omitted. The favored style, however, is to retain the period and display et al. in regular roman type. In addition, there's no need to include and before et al. since et means just that, and.

turning a page

Et seq. is chiefly a legal abbreviation of Latin et sequens, meaning "and the following one"—or et sequentes (the Latin masculine and feminine plural) or et sequentia (the neuter plural), both of which mean "and the following ones." It is used to reference a particular page or section (or pages or sections) of a case, article, rule, code, regulation, or statute that contains further information, as in "the procedures outlined in this Article and Article 3950 et seq. of the Code of Civil Procedure."

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The Latin phrase et cetera has been used in English since the early Middle Ages and translates as "and others of the same kind" or "and so forth." (Et means "and"; cētera means "the other, other part, that which remains.") Earliest print evidence of its common abbreviation, etc., is from the 15th century, and it is used after a partial list of things to indicate that many others of the same kind can be inferred ("The zoo has lions, tigers, bears, etc."). Before the 20th century, the spelling &c. was also common; the ampersand standing in for et, meaning "and." 

The phrase et cetera, as well as etcetera (which didn't start being used until the 16th century), is also applied to convey a number of unspecified additional persons or things. Here's a sampling from literature. 

At the upper end of the room was a table, with a white cloth upon it, well covered with a roast fowl, bacon, ale, and et ceteras.
— Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers, 1837

You're a very good old creature.… You're all affection and et cetera, ain't you?
— Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, 1848

With great blandness he resumed the subject of his flowers; talked poetically and symbolically of their sweetness, perfume, purity, etcetera.
— Charlotte Brontë, Villette, 1853

The phrase and abbreviation are pronounced with an initial \et\; pronunciations beginning with \ek\ and \ik\ are regarded as nonstandard. Finally, when etc. is used at the end of a list in the middle of a sentence, it should be followed by a comma.

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The abbreviation i.e. comes from the Latin phrase id est, which means "that is," and it is used in English with that meaning (or loosely "that is to say" or "what that means is") to introduce something that explains or clarifies a preceding statement more fully or exactly or that restates it in more simple or different terms. In other words, it means "in other words."

The ointment only needs to be applied for a short period of time—i.e., three to five days.

multiple bookmarks

Ibid. has been used since the 17th century as an abbreviation of the Latin word ibidem, which means "in the same place." It indicates that a cited reference is from the same source as a previous reference.

 1. Warren A. Seavey, Studies in Agency (1949)
2. Ibid., Handbook of the Law of Agency (1964)  

It may be used several times in succession. In footnotes or endnotes, it can be used without a page number to indicate the same page of the same source referred to in a preceding note. 

 10. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parsley (1953; reprint, Knopf, 1987), 600.
11. Ibid., 609
12. Ibid.

In older works, you might encounter the similarly used Latin abbreviations op. cit. (for opere citato, "in the work cited") and loc. cit. (for loco citato, "in the place cited"). Op. cit. refers to the source cited earlier (with other notes intervening) but not necessarily to the same page or pages. 

 19. Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency (New York: Commonwealth Fund, 1950), 23.
20. Don C. Gibbons, Delinquent Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972), 341.
21. Glueck, op. cit., 30-34. 

Loc. cit. refers strictly to the same page or pages of the same source cited earlier, with references to other sources intervening. 

 13. W. T. Sanders, Cultural Ecology of the Teotihuacan Valley (State College, Penn.: Pennsylvania State Univ., 1965), 312-13.
14. Sabloff and Andrews, op. cit., 160.
15. Sanders, loc. cit.

You might also encounter the less-common abbreviation id. for idem. In Latin, idem means "same," and Old English writers borrowed it to refer to a word, phrase, etc., that is the same as something previously mentioned. Today, it is chiefly found in bibliographies to avoid repetition of an author's name and title when a reference to an item immediately follows another to the same item.

 1. Whitney 50-55
2. Ibid.
3. Id., 51

highlighted text

The abbreviation N.B. (or NB) comes from the Latin phrase nota bene, meaning "mark (note) well," and it is used to tell the reader that something is important.

Instead of vengeance Hahn took hush money and, for seven years (N.B. the magical number), she hushed.
— Helen Smith, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, 7 Oct. 1987

Its earliest recorded uses in English are from about mid-17th century. The phrase itself (nota bene) is first used in English writing as an interjection and noun, referring to an instance of commenting with a nota bene, in the early 18th century. The interjectional nota bene is still called upon today: "Nota Bene: No One in America Gets Exonerated," reads an editorial headline in the March 25, 2019 issue of The New York Sun. But the nominal "a nota bene" and "notabenes" are rarely seen or heard.

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The abbreviation q.v. is of the Latin phrase "quod vide," which translates literally as "which see." It appears in English writing in the 17th century and is used as a direction to a reader to refer to another page where more information can be found or where something mentioned in passing is explained more thoroughly. For example, one section of a text on the American Civil War might make a passing reference to the Battle of Gettysburg followed by "(q.v.)." This parenthetical note directs the reader to refer to an entry or information on Gettysburg found elsewhere within the text.  

This is a distillation of what is set out with more complexity in what is certainly her greatest book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, q.v., as the footnotes say.
— J. M. Cameron, The New York Review of Books, 6 Nov. 1969

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P. is a familiar abbreviation for page and so is its plural pp. (meaning "pages," as well as "per person"). The practice of doubling a single-letter abbreviation to form a plural goes back to Latin. A similar abbreviation that you might be familiar with is ff., plural of f., meaning "and the following one" or "folio" (which is a Latin-derived word meaning "leaves or pages of a book"). F. or ff. refer to a page or pages that follow another in numerical order. Unlike pp., ff. doesn't indicate a stopping point: "pp. 101-110"; 101 ff."  

A lesser-known double p abbreviation is for the Latin phrase per procurationem, meaning "by agency," "by the authority of an agent," or "by proxy." (The related procuration is used in English to refer to the act of appointing another as one's agent or attorney, or of obtaining or procuring something.) Originally, this p.p. was used before one's own name when signing a letter on someone else's behalf (e.g., "Noah Webster p.p. Rebecca Webster," which means that Rebecca Webster is signing on behalf of Noah Webster).

dictionary definition

The abbreviation s.v. stands for Latin sub verbo or sub voce and translates as "under the word." It is used when citing a specific entry in a dictionary, encyclopedia, or index that follows under the indicated word.

… to those who have not time to choose between possession, gain, advantage, resource, & other synonyms.
— Fowler 1926 (s.v. asset)

woman explaining something photo

The abbreviation sc. can be used for scene, science, and scilicet (an adverb meaning "that is to say"). It is often used to provide clarification or further example when used as a shortening of scilicetVidelicet also means "that is to say"; its abbreviation is viz.

A recent request, which involved much work for small success, was for an example of "chastity belt" before 1932, which it (sc. the phrase) had been used by Louis McNeice.
— Marghanita Laski, The Times Literary Supplement, 11 Jan. 1968

There are Funnel Cakes, viz. cake batter quick-fried to a tornadic spiral and rolled in sugared butter.
—David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, 1997

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Versus is usually abbreviated v. in legal writing, and the v may be roman or italic ("Brown v. Board of Education"). Otherwise, vs. is used ("good vs. evil").




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