For one reason or another, we love to shorten words down. Particularly in non-formal situations. Gasoline becomes gas. Tomato Ketchup becomes Tommy K. And one word that we often like to make shorter is “Little”.
Many people like to change “little” into “lil”. Or should that be “lil'” or even “li’l”?
Today, we’ll look at the correct way to shorten “little”, why people shorten it anyway, and where it even comes from.
Li’l Or Lil’ Or ‘Lil? Which Is The Correct Short Form For “Little”?
There isn’t a correct way to shorten “little”, as this is a word that cannot be shortened in a grammatically correct way. But the two most common ways are “lil” and “lil'”. It’s very rare for someone to shorten it to “li’l”.
“Li’l” Is Technically The Least Grammatically Incorrect
Of course, neither of the three options is technically “correct”. But if we want to follow grammar rules as closely as we can, the one that breaks the rules the least is “li’l”.
When we use an apostrophe for contraction, we use it to replace the letters we’ve gotten rid of.
If we turn “We are” into “We’re”. The ” a” has been replaced by “’”.
Therefore, when we turn “little” into “lil”, we’re getting rid of the “tt”, meaning “li’l” makes the most sense out of our three options.
However, I doubt Lil Wayne tried too hard to impress his English teacher.
But It Doesn’t Matter That Li’l, Lil’ And ‘Lil Are Grammatically Incorrect
However, when we’re not in an English classroom, or writing for English scholars, we can bend, and even break, some of the rules of English.
Even though “lil” and “lil’” and even “li’l” are incorrect, that is not a good enough reason for us not to use them. Neither of these terms is “official”, they are slang terms meant to give the impression of edginess and street smarts.
Language isn’t made up of set in stone rules. Its fluid. It can change. Rules can die out. New rules can come in.
We don’t have to spend our lives impressing our English teachers.
What Does Lil Mean?
As you may have already guessed from much of the article, “lil” has the same meaning as “little”.
“little” means small in quantity. When we say “lil” instead of “little”, we’re saying it in a way that’s shorter, quicker, and less formal. For when our command of English is less important than just getting our point across.
If I ask you for “just a lil bit”, I am asking you for only a small amount. If I’m a “lil cross”, that means I’m a bit cross.
How To Pronounce Lil
The pronunciation of “lil” is something that I can’t help but find fascinating. In theory, it should be said the same way that it’s spelt. It ought to rhyme with mill.
However, for one reason or another, it always ends up sounding like some form of variation of the form “little”. Perhaps this is because we subconsciously know what it should be. But it could also be because our mouths are designed so that the tongue rolls off at the end of “lil”, giving the impression of a “t”.
Try it if you don’t believe me. Try saying “lil”, but have it rhyme with “mill” and sound nothing like “little”.
The Surprising Origin Of Lil
Although today, when we hear the word “lil”, we might think of rappers such as Lil Jon or Lil Wayne, the abbreviation for “little” can be found as far back as the 1800s.
But there’s more to it than that!
Not only is it super old, but originally, it came from a children’s nursery rhyme. The rhyme would go “lil boy bear, lil gal bear”.
It’s funny to think that a name associated with rap came from a nursery rhyme about small bears. But language is quite funny sometimes.
Lil Is A Common Name In Rap
Why Rappers Are Called “Lil”
From Nursery Rhymes to rappers. How did we get here? Why do so many rappers like to call themselves “lil”?
In the United States of America, there are a lot of nicknames in gang culture. Perhaps to protect people’s identities. The term “lil” is often given to people who are shorter than the rest of the gang members. It can also be given to people when they are young, and it just sticks with them for the rest of their life.
There are some people with the nickname “lil” who are anything but small. But, because they were small when they first got the name, it has stuck around.
7 Rappers Called “lil”
Here are some famous rappers who have the name “lil” in their rap names. You might even recognise some of them.
- Lil Jon
His music has a lot of autotune in it. It’s loud, heavy, and the kind of thing you could play at a party
- Lil Wayne
His music is slower and a bit more sombre. He can go from talking about big butts on one track and losing the love of his life in the next.
- Lil Kim
The first woman on this list, she was big in the 1990s, and she always pushes the boundaries of what a woman is allowed to do.
- Lil mama
Another woman on the list. She’s out here to show that girls can do it too. And by girls I mean popping, locking, and rapping.
- Lil Nas X
More of a singer than a rapper. Lil nas x has shot onto the scene recently, and he loves to push boundaries.
- Lil baby
Now he’s called “DaBaby”, but he still looks much older than a baby. He specialises in gangster rap.
- Lil Yachty
This guy is known for having fun when he wants to. With crazy hair and smart clothes, you want him at your party.
Lil Jon Vs Little John: Similar Names, Not So Similar People
In rap, there is a rapper called “Lil Jon”. And in Robin Hood, there is a character called “Little John”. Even though these guys have a name that sounds the same, it’s spelt differently.
Lil Jon is a rapper who was probably given that name because of his short height. On the other hand, Little John is anything but little. He was probably given that name ironically, to highlight just how big he is.
Strange how two names that sound so similar can have completely different meanings.
Lil Is Also Common Outside Of Rap
9 Phrases That Use “Lil”
Outside of rap, there are plenty of other phrases that also use the word “lil”, here are some of my personal favourites
- Just a lil bit
When you just want a small amount, and you don’t want too much.
- You’re such a lil baby
You are behaving in a childlike manner. This is usually said out of frustration
- It’s a lil hot
The temperature is on the hotter end of the spectrum. It’s not boiling, but I don’t need a jumper.
- Hey there lil buddy.
What people say when they’re talking to a small animal such as a dog or a squirrel.
- We do a lil dancing
What you say when you’re in a bad mood and you decide to do some dancing to cheer yourself up.
- Any lil thing
Another way of saying “Anything”, but emphasising that you don’t mind how small or seemingly insignificant it might be.
- You a lil b***h
What you might say to someone who has done something to annoy or provoke you.
- Let’s get a lil crazy up in here
Let’s have a party filled with all sorts of weird stuff that our parents probably wouldn’t approve of.
- Lil cutie
Adorable. Small and very sweet.
“Lil” Can Also Be Short For Lillian
As well as being short for “little”, “lil” can also be short for “Lillian”.
Most people called “Lillian” are more likely to go by the name “Lily”, however, there are still some who prefer to be called “lil”.
It’s like how Jonathan can be shortened to “Johnny” or “John”.
However, I get the feeling that “Lil Wayne’s” full name is not “Lillian Wayne”. Whether or not “lil” means “little” or “Lillian” is usually obvious. But let me tell you, it’s unlikely there will ever be a rapper called “Lillian Kim” or “Lillian Mama”.
But I digress.
The two most common abbreviations of “Little” are either “lil” or “lil'”. The first is far more common, but the second isn’t unheard of.
“li’l” is still not a “real” word, but it’s closer to being grammatically correct than the other two. However, most of the time “lil” is used by rappers, and I doubt many of them are too bothered about impressing English scholars.
The word “lil” will naturally sound like “little”. And most people are called “lil” if they’re small, or at least were when they were given that name.
Next time you wanna write “little” abbreviated, you’ll know what to do!
Martin is the founder of Grammarhow.com. With top grades in English and teaching experience at university level, he is on a mission to share all of his knowledge about the English language. Having written thousands of articles, he is an expert at explaining difficult topics in a simple language.
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