Harry Morgan and abbreviations

While notable and admirable people, like Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens, have died recently, and the New York Times Magazine today did its annual issue on “The Lives They Lived”, featuring many less famous people who died during the year, somewhere in the middle range are people like the character actor Harry Morgan, who died early in December. I’m a fan of durable character actors — and (linguist alert!) Morgan’s M*A*S*H character Col. Sherman Potter  was also notable for the way he referred to the Second World War.

From the Times obit (“Harry Morgan, Colonel Potter on ‘M*A*S*H,’ Dies at 96” by Michael Pollak):

… In more than 100 movies, Mr. Morgan played Western bad guys, characters with names like Rocky and Shorty, loyal sidekicks, judges, sheriffs, soldiers, thugs and police chiefs.

On television, he played Officer Bill Gannon with a phlegmatic but light touch to Jack Webb’s always-by-the-book Sgt. Joe Friday in the updated “Dragnet,” from 1967 to 1970. He starred as Pete Porter, a harried husband, in the situation comedy “Pete and Gladys” (1960-62), reprising a role he had played on “December Bride” (1954-59). He was also a regular on “The Richard Boone Show” (1963-64), “Kentucky Jones” (1964-65), “The D.A.” (1971-72), “Hec Ramsey” (1972-74), “You Can’t Take It With You” (1987) and “Blacke’s Magic” (1986).

But to many fans he was first and foremost Col. Sherman T. Potter, commander of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit in Korea. With a wry smile, flat voice and sharp humor, Mr. Morgan played Colonel Potter from 1975 to 1983, when “M*A*S*H” went off the air. He replaced McLean Stevenson , who had quit the series, moving into the role on the strength of his performance as a crazed major general in an early episode. [I’ve recently watched this episode again; it’s achingly funny.]

In an interview for the Archive of American Television, Mr. Morgan said of his “M*A*S*H” character: “He was firm. He was a good officer and he had a good sense of humor. I think it’s the best part I ever had.”

Now the Second World War. (I’m probably the thousandth person to note the phenomenon here. I don’t claim any originality; I’m just tickled by the facts.) One customary alternative designation is World War Two or World War II. The orthographic abbreviation for this is WW2 or WWII. So far so good.

The orthographic abbreviation can simply be read out as “World War Two”. Or it can be read as an initialism, using the name of the letter W (“double U”), perhaps in a phonologically reduced version (roughly like “dubyou” or “dubya”). The initialistic reading has a curious consequence: the spoken “abbreviation” is longer than the expression it nominally abbreviates — 7 syllables if W is read “double U”, 5 if it’s read as “dubyou” or “dubya” (as I usually say it, and as Col. Potter said it), versus 3 for “World War Two”. Not really an abbreviation.

While I was thinking about durable character actors, I checked on Conchata Ferrell, who’s still going strong. I remember her with pleasure as nurse Joan Thor in the tv situation comedy E/R (with Elliot Gould) in 1984-85 and in the short-lived sitcom Hot L Baltimore in 1975 (continuing her stage role in Lanford Wilson’s play). And now, as Wikipedia tells us:

Conchata Galen Ferrell (born March 28, 1943) is an American actress. She is best known for playing Berta the housekeeper in the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, for which she received two Emmy Award nominations in 2005 and 2007.

One Response to “Harry Morgan and abbreviations”

  1. mike Says:

    >” the spoken “abbreviation” is longer than the expression it nominally abbreviates”

    This is also the case for “world wide web,” which was particularly noticeable back when people still felt the need to sound out “www” as part of web addresses. (Or, god help us, haitch-tee-tee-pee-colon-slash-slash.)

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