John McIntyre

In a word: prolly

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:



Yesterday Professor George William Cloud of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill posted this on Facebook: "I am delighted to learn that the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes the informal use of 'prolly.' Anyone who grew up in Pleant Hill has already accepted its validity. Perhaps John McIntyre will recognize it as well.

It's actually the Oxford Dictionaries rather than the OED with this entry: "informal Probably." The etymological citation: "1940s: representing an informal pronunciation of probably."


Update: After I posted this, a tweet from Jesse Sheidlower informed me that prolly has a citation in the OED from 1922.

The Macmillan Dictionary suggests a more recent origin: "probably: used in e-mails and text messages."

The Urban Dictionary, variably reliable, leads off with "Shortened version of "probably". Typically used in online conversations, although REALLY lazy people have started using it in verbal conversations as well..." The accusation of laziness is typical of the kind of class scorn in evidence when people disparage informal or colloquial speech.

The second entry shows greater sophistication and depth: "Literary colloquialism for 'probably', most likely first used in print in John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces, (1980), in the speech of one of the book's characters, the mother of the protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly. The use of the word is meant to reflect the speech typical of white working-class residents of New Orleans, Louisiana."

And this one: "A spoken colloquialism that existed pre-internet, despite what many people claim. 'Prolly' is a clipped pronunciation of 'probably'; compare with 'g'day' as a clipped pronunciation of 'good day', or 'gonna' as a common spoken shortening of 'going to'. Certainly non-standard, but not necessarily indicative of the writer's laziness. For some, writing in this manner mimics their natural speech pattern/dialect."

The Corpus of Contemporary American English has thirty-two citations, nearly all of them from fiction.

The evidence indicates that what has for some time been British slang and Southern pronunciation is now adopted for text messages as the Young People, with their cunning little thumbs, seize on abbreviations.

And as for any of you It's-Not-A-Word-Because-It's-Not-Standard-English people reading this, prolly has a spelling, a pronunciation, a meaning, an etymology, and lexicographical citations, which make it a word.


Example: From the January-February 2015 issue of Mother Jones, in the article "They Locked Me in That Little Room With Northing" by Dana Liebelson: "While in isolation, Kenny … wrote to his mother, Melissa Bucher, begging her to make the two-hour drive to visit him. 'I don't feel like I'm going to make it anymore,' he wrote. 'I'm in seclusion so I can't call and I'm prolly going to be in here for a while. My mind is just getting to me in here.' "