‘Tis and 10 Other Fun Proclitic Words
By Arika Okrent
English likes to stick contractions on the end of words. “They have” becomes “they’ve,” “I will” becomes “I’ll,” and “do not” becomes “don’t.” The shortened parts of these words are called enclitics—they are a bit more independent than suffixes, but like suffixes, they attach to the ends of words. English also used to have a number of proclitics—shortened words that attach to the beginning of other words. Most proclitic words are now archaic or obsolete, but every December the neglected proclitics get their revenge, as a holiday avalanche of “‘tis” rolls through town.
‘Tis, a shortening of it is, has a Dickensian, Christmasy ring to it. For a time, it was far more common in writing than its counterpart it’s. The final shift from ‘tis to it’s took place in the middle of the 19th century, when Dickens was writing his novels. That was also when the lyrics to “Deck the Halls” were first published. The phrase ‘tis the season is now so deeply embedded in our linguistic consciousness that the perfectly normal phrase it’s the season just sounds weird, like Mick Jagger singing “I can’t get any satisfaction.”
Why let ‘tis have all the fun? This season, get in the proclitic spirit with these 10 other charming word-beginning contractions.
This is another one that contributes to the Christmasy overtones of these words, due to its association with “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
This poor guy is doubly archaic. Not only does it contain the contracted “it,” but also the subjunctive “were.” If the subjunctive was still commonly used—that is, if ‘twere commonly used—we might hope for a ‘twere revival. But probably not.
The “t” sound doesn’t attach so well to the beginning of could or should, but it has no problem forming a cluster with the “w” of would.
‘Tis, ‘twas, and ever ‘twill be.
Nothing stopping a word from contracting on both ends. ‘Twon’t gets “it will not” into one syllable.
Some prefer ‘tisn’t, but if you prefer ‘tain’t, ‘tain’t nobody’s business.
“It” isn’t the only word that can turn proclitic. “Thou” can also reduce and join to its verb. Shakespeare did it. Th’art impressed, I bet.
Chaucer did it with the negation particle “ne.” If thou n’art impressed now, we don’t know what to tell you.
You can even take an enclitic, the s of “it’s,” and turn it into a proclitic, Gershwin style: ‘swonderful, ‘smarvelous, ‘sawful nice, ‘sparadise, and so on until ‘sdone.
This one may not call to mind Dickens, Shakespeare, Chaucer, or even Gershwin, but it can still help you get in a holiday mood. ‘Tis the season, y’all.