'V' Is for Very

The rise of the shortest possible abbreviation and what it means for the future of English

Over lunch one day, a co-worker grumbled about something being "v. annoying."

It took a second for me to understand what the quick, consonant blip pre-adjective was, and when my brain processed it, I realized something: Yet again, we'd contextualized Internet slang into a colloquialism.

Or was it as new-fangled as it seemed?

OMG, after all, the classic abbreviation—used by squealing pre-teens, shocked parents, and everyone in between to evoke a three-syllabic exclamation of emotions ranging from surprise to ironic excitement—was one of the original text acronyms to be translated from cellphone screen to language (remember those "scandalous" Gossip Girl ads with block letter "OMFG" plastered over racy, hazy scenes of the show's Upper East Siders?). Then there was LOL (spelled aloud as "el-oh-el," or pronounced alternately as "lawl," or with a zippy z at the end, "lawlz"), whose evocation raised a contradiction—often saying "LOL" means you aren't actually laughing.

The story of v. is one that might be easily sourced initially to textese, the often indecipherable code spoken in the early text messaging era when each message was precious and could only hold 140 characters.

But v.'s modern usage might be traced to the same retro 140-character efficiency in another platform: Twitter. Using v., after all, allows for more characters for valuable expression, saving real estate for numbers or hashtags—particularly if the period is removed.

V.'s history is very difficult to trace, particularly because of its more common, more traditional usage in legal cases as an abbreviation for versus. But v.'s rise as an abbreviation for "very" means that it is quickly countering v.'s former association with court cases.

Katherine Martin, head of U.S. dictionaries at the Oxford University Press, which publishes the Oxford English Dictionary, says the abbreviation is in fact "older than you might expect." She pointed to an 1891 example from the letters of Winston Churchill (who, coincidentally, is often cited in the development of OMG), in which Churchill wrote on New Years Day, "V-happy V. well."

Ben Zimmer, linguist and language columnist with The Wall Street Journal, points to the 1851 issue of The Horticultural Review and Botanical Magazine, where crop conditions are classified as v good, v bad, v great, v plenty, and v scarce. In the U.S., Zimmer points to 1920 edition of Funk & Wagnalls’ Comprehensive Standard Dictionary of the English Language, which listed v. as a possible abbreviation of “very,” in addition to vicar, version, and vocative, among others.

V. is also arguably the first abbreviation to be shortened down to a single consonant. (P. sure it won't be the last, though.)

The muddled origin story of v. raises a central question: Is the American adoption of v. a mere reappropriation of a Britishism (Bridget Jones’s Diary included many entries with observations by the titular character flagged with v.’s) or is it a result of the digital infiltration and subsequent evolution of English?

"I can’t speak to its use in spoken conversation," Martin said. "But it would not surprise me if that is taking place. It’s not uncommon for something that originates as a graphic abbreviation in a written context to be adopted in spoken contexts as a distinct word."

Zimmer, too, couldn’t quite place v.’s current resurgence. “I’ve seen it occasionally on Twitter,” he said. “But I’m curious myself to know how widespread it is.”

But v.'s existence raises a larger question about the direction English is taking. Language, after all, is always evolving—adjusting to technological innovation, changing to socioeconomic norms, simply reflecting the creativity required to express human desires, emotions, and experiences. Is it possible that we are now searching for a level of efficiency in language so severe that we've moved from acronyms to single letters? P. (for pretty, as in "that's p. tasty,") is already making an entrance into colloquialism, so perhaps an onslaught of single-letter abbreviations is upcoming. But does that mean after 24 more iterations of letter abbreviations, we'll be out of ideas? Sali Tagliamonte, professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto, thinks v.’s current iteration is simply a reflection of its role as an “intensifier,” much the way the words "really," "so," and "super" are.

“I do not think it’s a common phenomenon,” Tagliamonte, whose work focuses on language use on the Internet by teenagers, said. “Intensifiers … change often. They are used as identity markers and to be ‘cool’ and ‘trendy.’”

Is v., then, just a fad, yet another groovy term that'll be snickered at in the future as a sign of the times? Perhaps not. Look to the strength of "ok," which has become a universally accepted term of agreement whose origins are equally (if not more) fuzzy and relay a sentiment in a snappy, two-letter (sometimes, just the latter letter) utterance. We've adopted it, it's English, and it works. And it leaves us with room for more important words—eloquent expressions, the latest pop culture phenomenon, or hashtaggery.

In essence, it may be the case that the inclusion of v. into common English is simply a reflection of social media's footprint in the lingo of our times—we want to say as much as possible as fast as possible. For better or for worse, speed is of the essence, and v.'s leap from textese to spoken word is indicative of this.

But v. may, in fact, be a linguistic time-saver, a way to indulge in a filler adverb without emphasizing it, the more educated “um,” the less ditzy “like.” The vitality of v. depends, in the end, on how many people adopt it and who uses it, but its popularity should not obscure the fact that it is a new way of doing what we always do with language: using what we have, recycling it to make words fresh, and bringing a new veneer to an otherwise tired phrase.

And that is v. cool.