Here at Lexicon Valley we like to describe rather than prescribe, ruminate rather than ordain or decree. We are the contemplative cows chewing over the cud of language use, not the woodpeckers hammering our preferences home. And yet. Every now and then a linguistic puzzle presents itself that cries out for a definite solution. The abbreviation of the word casual is one such puzzle. How do you spell … that word?
We’re after answers, but we’re still a democracy, so we are going to tackle this pressing problem via roundtable discussion, after which you guys will tell us in the comments what you think. I’ll start. Because I’m right. The correct way to spell the shortening of casual is …
First, the abbreviation of a word should not be longer or more complex than the word itself. Second, it should embody something of the spirit of the word. Caj is simple, direct, and brief—Dress code: caj—but it also lends itself to languorous lengthening: The date was cajjjjjjjjjj. Thorny consonantal clusters (like in caszh and cajzh) don’t conjure the requisite frictionlessness and ease, whereas the J makes phonetic sense, has a storybook charm, and is distinctive. To be casual is to obey the rules when it suits you. To keep it loose, a little wild. That J—a little something different that nevertheless avoids fussy four-car pileups of letters—delights the eye without requiring you to dig around in alternate alphabets. (Also, fasten on a second J and the word evokes, logically, the rhyming hajj.)
—Katy Waldman, words correspondent
We native English speakers are a parochial lot. Many eschew learning foreign languages altogether, and our newspapers and websites rarely display characters from foreign alphabets. That’s why my ideal representation of the abbreviated version of casual—caж, using the eighth letter of the Russian alphabet—is a nonstarter, even though the sound ж signifies, the zh-ish s that appears in the middle of the word casual, is just right. As a second-place substitute I favor cajzh. The middle J might seem excessive, but it’s necessary. Without it, cazh is too soft and sibilant. It’s ironic that we can only form the easy-breezy version of an already casual word by creating such a clogged-up concentration of consonants that we have to clench our teeth to pronounce it.
—June Thomas, culture critic and Outward editor
Good abbreviations, needless to say, leave no room for alternatives. Natch. Poss. Totes. These are all perfectly intuitive word crops, straightforward shortcuts with clear meanings. But lopping off the second syllable of casual just doesn’t work in print. So if we insist on doing it, the only route is the practical one. No desperate clustering of letters to create an inexpressible sound. No invoking a non-English character to help out where our own language fails. No weird solitary J's. The best choice is to write the syllable itself, plus an apostrophe to stand in for the missing letters: the ugly but functional cas’.
—Laura Bennett, senior editor
The problem with how to spell the commonly used abbreviation of casual is that there’s no letter, or letter combination, in English that perfectly represents the lovely sound in the middle of casual—the satisfying thick buzz, the aural smear, not a typical Z but a Z that’s been smoking pot all afternoon. It’s not zh, or jzh, or any of the other suggestions my misguided colleagues have made here. Smushing a bunch of letters together in hopes of evoking a simple phonetic sound is hopeless. Luckily, the international phonetic alphabet offers us the answer, and the Internet offers us the way to find it.
The sound is called the voiced palato-alveolar sibilant, and the way to spell the abbreviation of casual you say all the time is caʒ. Look how pretty that is! The letter, called an ezh, looks like the offspring of a Z and a G, which is just perfect. The next time you’re looking to type this word, just Google “ezh,” copy-paste, and you’re on your way. You may also shorten the usual to the uʒ, or “Kyrie Irving has excellent court vision” to “whoa his court viʒ.” Do not, however, shorten menopausal to menopauʒ; this is incorrect.
—Dan Kois, culture editor
The obvious correct spelling for the single-syllable shortened form of casual so often used in informal speech is caszh. We need the S to hearken back to the spelling of the word we’re trying to abbreviate. (Caj, by contrast, might look like an abbreviation of cajun or cajole to the uninitiated.) However, cas alone looks like it sounds like caz or cass, so we also need the additional zh, which is already widely understood to represent the voiced palato-alveolar sibilant. Caszh is efficient, containing just enough letters to get the job done, without requiring any special characters. And there’s something appropriately pleasant about that cluster of consonants at the end, which seems to imply that you can draw out the zh sound as long as you like when you speak the word aloud.
—Laura Anderson, associate editor
This is America, where we go big and act haphazardly. We ignore problems, or we win by throwing everything we have at them, including consonants. My friends, spelling the shortened casual is an American problem. Maybe cascjzh looks foreign to you. Maybe as usual we’ve failed in our quest for perfection. But I will be damned if we roll over and grasp at a spelling as plainly wrong as cas like some idle Frenchman. I will be damned if we borrow a letter from another language like some leading-from-behind wimp.
Achieving the opposite of our wars' objectives is the American way; when we aim to correctly shorten casual, we can only hope to lengthen it. To win honorably, when we abbreviate casual, we need a surge—we must pile consonant upon consonant until we approximate the right sound. We will not go quietly into the night; we will not vanish without a fight. We're going to spell on. Because Americans are not casual. We spell with excess, or we do not spell at all. We are cascjzh.
—Seth Maxon, home page editor