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to remove vowels from text when writing it electronically, especially as a way of typing a message more quickly or to make it more difficult to read if it includes words which are offensive
'The practice has been labelled "disemvowelling" – the act of stripping letters and respelling a word with the aid of numbers and symbols in order to ease the strain on one's thumb while composing an SMS text message.'ABC Online, Australia 22nd June 2007
'In our impatience, we disemvowel language when we transmit terse txt msgs to our m8s, … We live in a culture suicidally intent on abbreviation.'The Observer 13th November 2005
f u cn rd ths, u knw wt dsmvlng mns. Did that make any sense to you? If so, then you're probably familiar with the concept of disemvowelling, and are likely to regularly apply it when you type messages. If not, then this is how the message reads: if you can read this, you know what disemvoweling means. Of course, you'll now see that the word simply refers to the process of removing vowels from written text.
Disemvowelling most commonly occurs in the context of Internet-based discussion forums, where it is often used as a way of partially disguising words which are potentially offensive (e.g. Oh G-d! rather than Oh God!). Forum moderators often use it as a way of limiting the effectiveness of trolls (annoying messages posted intentionally in order to cause trouble). The idea is that, although the text is still legible (so arguably there are no issues about suppressing freedom of speech), it requires more effort than usual to read, and therefore will not cause offence to anyone who doesn't stop and invest effort in working out what it says.
there are even pieces of software that will remove vowels automatically, a procedure which is sometimes described as autodisemvowel(l)ing
The process is so regularly used that there are even pieces of software, sometimes referred to as disemvowellers (also spelt disemvowelers) that will remove vowels automatically, a procedure which is sometimes described as autodisemvowel(l)ing. There's a related transitive verb disemvowel, whose object is, incidentally, often human, so an example of a common use is she was / got disemvowelled, meaning that the text she wrote was altered. There's also a corresponding participle adjective disemvowel(l)ed, as in disemvowelled text / comments, and an alternative process noun disemvowelment. There's even a reverse procedure (i.e. re-inserting vowels which have been taken out) which is referred to as reemvowelment.
Though, strictly speaking, disemvowelling describes the removal of vowels only, the word also crops up in discussions relating to the general techniques people use for abbreviating electronic text, especially in text messaging. This includes the substitution of numbers and symbols for particular syllables, such as: c u l8r, &e (= see you later, Andy).
Disemvowelling and its related verb disemvowel are, of course, a play on the word disembowel, meaning, rather unpleasantly, 'to kill someone by cutting open their stomach and removing their intestines'. There's evidence of its use in Internet slang since the mid-1990s, and the verb disemvowel recently found its way into the latest edition of the Collins English Dictionary. A related expression is the phrasal verb to splat out, which refers to the practice of replacing particular characters with the asterisk symbol (*), in order to make words seem less offensive.
This article was first published on 13th August 2007.
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