Wednesday, May 22, 2013


I dedicate this essay to one of those Copernican moments of spiritual life when a chance epiphany reveals the depths of some modest marvel until then only superficially considered, and thus modifies or even obliterates mental habits so long indulged as to seem innate.  They are all the more to be savored because they are so rare.  I must look back four decades for a close parallel to my recent aperçu of the apostrophe. It must have been about 1970 that I blundered upon the invaluable monograph of Dr. Margarete Braun-Ronsdorf entitled The History of the Handkerchief.  I perhaps did not see a new heaven and a new earth, but never again would I sniff at a modest textile accoutrement apparently hardly less transformative in its invention than the wheel, the stirrup, or moveable types.  Such achievements are nothing to be sneezed at.

            This past week David Adams, our man in New Hampshire, who frequently sends us cultural gleanings he rightly suspects might otherwise escape our attention, shared the good news coming from the west of England about the Mid Devon Council deliberations. The good news, of course, was that the Council had reversed itself on its policy, rashly announced earlier, regarding apostrophes.  Several old, cast iron street signs within the Council authority—in particular, that for the notorious “St. Paul’s Square”—brazenly (or at least ferrously) included visible apostrophes that were proving indomitable to the fashioners of GPS technology.  Naturally the Council legislated the removal of the apostrophes forthwith.

            Gadgets and gizmos are today’s idols of the market-place, and Asian electronics would certainly have prevailed over our mother tongue had it not been for the forceful and effective intervention of Mr. John Richards, founding president of the Apostrophe Protection Society.  I don’t know Mr. Richards personally, but he is an inspiration to us all. He and his fellow Apostrophians are fighting the good fight against the growing horde of punctuational barbarians, who seem intent on abusing the generous easement allowing the use of the apostrophe to indicate the plurals of figures and letters (see “Getting My Historical ZZZ’s” [GLGT 5/1]) in a most slovenly fashion.  They want to use it for any damned plural that comes along.  A few of the most benighted seem to think no letter s should lack its apostrophic prelude.

            Perhaps people might use apostrophes more intelligently if they knew what an apostrophe is: namely, a labor saving device invented by efficiency minded medieval scribes.  Mrs. White taught me that the apostrophe was “the sign of the possessive”.  That was all well and good so far as it went.  The man has a horse.
The man’s horse is white.  In general, the once robust declension of English nouns has become dull and flaccid, but there is in that ’s at least the memory, wreck, or relic of a perfectly good Old English genitive (“possessive”) singular: mannes.  Womman,” in the memorable words of one of Chaucer’s talking chickens, “is mannes joye and al his blis.”'s, well, almo'st all...

            Where did the apostrophe come from?  If you were a medieval Latin scribe, you got tired of repeatedly writing out in full certain very common prefixes (such as con-, cum-, pre-, pro,  praeter- and many others), which could easily be indicated by convenient short-hand signs.  Common “case endings” in noun declensions (orum, arum, inis, and so forth) could also be usefully abbreviated.  Some medieval Latin manuscripts are virtual abbreviation orgies, and nearly impossible to read.  The standard scholarly manual (A. Cappelli’s Dizionario di Abbreviature latine ed italiane) is more than 500 pages long.  One very common case ending (-us, as in the imaginary Latin hocus pocus, mediocus) was one of several  abbreviated with a pen stroke approaching the modern “apostrophe”: hoc’ poc’.  Jesus=Ies’.

            Thus did the apostrophe come to signify a dropped letter or letters.  One very odd thing is that for a time the convention continued in some printed books.  Chaucer in the fourteenth century wrote mannes (two syllables, voiceless s).  Milton in the first line of Paradise Lost (seventeenth century) writes “Of Mans first disobedience…” [pronounced manz with voiced s, one syllable, no apostrophe].   Very soon the “correct” form became man’s, but with only an elite few having much of a clue about the habits of medieval scribes or any “missing letter”.

            There are a few other interesting survivals of medieval scribal practice.  A horizontal line (macron, or “long” mark) above a consonant doubled the consonant.  The same sign above a vowel signaled a following nasal.  This is the origin of the Spanish tilde in words like año (year).  Indeed ñ eventually achieved its own independent status in the Castilian alphabet.  The medieval practice is more clearly preserved in Portuguese, as in the national capital, Lisbõa, and the name of the greatest of Lusitanian poets, Luís de Camões.

            The names of the punctuation points generally derive from the compositional elements to which they were related by early grammarians.  Thus the period related to the sentence, while the comma (Greek for “segment” or “clause”) to a discrete element of a sentence.  The Greek colon (member) was a smaller part yet.  The surname of Christopher Columbus in Italian was Colombo, but its Spanish version was Colón (Cf. the capital of Panama), a fact that allowed him to exercise his wit in constructing a mystical or kabbalistic “signature”. 

 [colon] XpistoFERENS     =     Cristóbal Colon

The etymology of apostrophe itself is complex, as two distinct ideas have been confused in a single word.  As a rhetorical term an apostrophe was a speaker’s “turning aside” to address some abstraction or nobody in particular: “O Death, where is thy victory?”  But it was also an elision of letters, and then the sign of such ellision [ ’ ].

            Newspaper accounts suggest that John Richards may build on his political triumph in Devon by founding a Comma Protection Society.  I could get behind that, though far more urgent is the need for a Sodality of the Semi-Colon.  Now there’s a truly endangered species.