When is a bridge not a bridge?

I remember having books of riddles and puzzles as a child, and a question from one of them remains with me to this day:

“When is a door not a door?”
The answer: “When it’s ajar.” (Get it? A jar, which isn’t a door.)

In a similar way, now that I’m etymologically grown up, I’d rather ask:
“When is a bridge not a bridge?”
And the answer, following the pattern of the earlier riddle, is:

Abridge isn’t a bridge when it’s abridge.”

The bridge—even a short one—that stretches over a river has nothing to do with the verb abridge that means ‘to make shorter.’ English took that verb from Old French abregier, which developed from the Late Latin abbreviare that meant ‘to shorten’ and is also the source of English abbreviate and Spanish abreviar. Late Latin had crafted its verb from the Latin adjective brevis, the predecessor of Spanish breve and, via Old French, English brief.

And that, in brief, is the story of abridge but not of a bridge—except insofar as this acts as an etymological bridge to the other side of phonetic confusion.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jeannine
    Oct 06, 2011 @ 11:00:49

    I remember the door riddle. The book in which I read it had another I’ve always remembered. When is a cowboy not a cowboy? When he’s abed.
    We must have come from a more innocent time. If I tried these on my x-box gen kids, they would look at me with pity.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Oct 06, 2011 @ 14:47:38

      Great to find someone else who remembers the door riddle. The one with abed is new to me, so thanks. There are various a+noun words in English, so there are openings for more such riddles even if, as you pointed out, there may not be much of an audience for them anymore.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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