Column: ’Tis the season of archaic contractions


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Isn’t it fun to run into seemingly outdated language during the holiday season? It’s the equivalent of having a herald show up at your door with a written proclamation on parchment instead of your friend merely sending you a text message. Holiday lyrics and stories are full of rich, old-school language that doesn’t show up much in our day-to-day word usage. Today, I’m going to talk about two tricky contractions, ‘tis and ‘twas.

‘Twas and ‘tis are special kinds of contractions called “proclitics.” A proclitic is a word that is so closely connected to the sound of the word that follows it that you end up mashing up the two words. We’re always looking for ways to shorten words, and ‘twas and ‘tis are some older examples of the English language finding a way to communicate more efficiently.

Why do the apostrophes go where they do in ‘twas and ‘tis? The basic rule of contractions is that you insert the apostrophe where the omitted letters used to be. So, if ‘twas is a contraction of “it was,” you insert the apostrophe in the place of the omitted “i” and smoosh the remaining letters together. Most contractions do not take letters out from the beginning of the first word. Other examples of words that fit this pattern include ‘twould, ‘twill and ‘twere.

There’s a good reason that we sound like Dickensian characters when we utter these words. Although they first show up in English in the 16th century, they were firmly baked into popular usage when Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” (1843) and when Thomas Oliphant penned the lyrics for “Deck the Halls” (1862). Shortly after this time, “it’s” emerges as the popular contraction form of “it is,” eventually surpassing “‘tis.” “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” more commonly known to modern readers as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” was written in 1823, although the poem’s authorship remains a topic of controversy.

Even though most of the cultural versions of our Christmas traditions have been made up through the years, I find it enriching to know why and how we ended up with the stories we pass down to our kids. I recently told my son (who is 5) that parents send text messages back and forth with Santa throughout the year to make sure he knows who’s been naughty or nice; it’s just a newer way of more convenient, efficient communication. Charles Dickens would be proud.