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Some Srs Bsns: Are Words Without Vowels Rlly More Efficient?

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How is language evolving on the internet? In this series on internet linguistics, Gretchen McCulloch breaks down the latest innovations in online communication.

Vowel-less words, like srsly, thx, k, pls, rlly, srs bsns, and o rly, are a well-known feature of internet language. They save time and space in typing, but are they really more efficient? Why do we use these abbreviations and not others? How is it that we can actually understand them? And are they just straightforward abbreviations, or do they pick up additional meaning?

First of all, why would we omit vowels rather than consonants? Well, there are a couple reasons. One is that while words tend to contain a fairly even split between sheer numbers of vowels and consonants, there are far more kinds of consonants than kinds of vowels: your odds of guessing the right vowel are 1 in 5, while your odds of guessing the right consonant are 1 in 20 (ignoring y). So it's easier to tell that cnsnnt is "consonant" with the vowels removed than that oe is "vowel" without any consonants, especially if you have some clues from the general topic of conversation.

In fact, if you look at writing systems around the world, not all alphabets even include vowels: in Arabic and Hebrew, for example, you don't normally write the short vowels because they only have three of them (a, i, and u), so it's pretty easy to figure out which to say where from context. But there aren't any languages where you only write vowels and not consonants.

What's going on with these internet slang words is actually slightly more complicated: a lot of these "vowel-less" words aren't exclusively missing vowels. Rather, it's something like any "less important" letter. For example, double letters get dropped in srs bsns and o rly, thx loses its 'n' and combines its 'ks' into 'x', and the 'y' in rlly and o rly is kept despite being pronounced like a vowel (not to mention o rly's 'o'). And that starts getting us into other ways you can drop letters — is v. for very a v. tiny acronym, or simply a few centuries of people deciding that the '-ery' simply isn't that important? And the newer p for pretty is p much the same question.

Whether they're strictly vowel-less or just reduced, though, don't these words just mean the same as their longer equivalents? Well, not so fast. Some of them do, pretty much: pls and thx and k are just slightly quicker and more informal than please and thanks and ok. But srs bsns embodies a contradiction: "serious business" sounds, well, serious, and internet slang is anything but — it's not surprising that its primary use has always been sarcastic.

And finally here's a question that I can't figure out by myself: if you use any of these terms, how do you pronounce them in your head? Since it's hard to pronounce a word without any vowels at all, I think I often end up mentally saying the vowels a bit quicker or less distinctly than the vowels in the original words, but they're still basically there. Srs is perhaps only two syllables (ser-russ rather than se-ri-ous), and v. and p get pronounced like the letters. But of course, I can't hear anyone else's voice inside their head, so how would you say them?

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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