Absent Trends – Frank McNally on the trail of missing apostrophes
An Irishman’s Diary
It is to the French that we owe the use of apostrophes in English, but the word itself comes from ancient Greece
There is a case to be made that life is too short for worrying about the misuse of apostrophes. Even the late John Richards, a grammarian Don Quixote, seems have thought so in the end. Twenty years ago, he cared so much about the problem that he set up the Apostrophe Protection Society to campaign against the punctuation mark’s ubiquitous mistreatment.
But in 2019, he shocked followers by publicly resigning his mission, citing two reasons. One was despair at how few others cared: “Ignorance and laziness […] have won,” he lamented. The other was that he was 96 and needed to cut down.
When he died recently, he was 97. But I see from the ATS tribute that whatever doubts the former journalist himself had about the campaign, his formal surrender in 2019 inspired such a massive increase in interest that it temporarily crashed their website. The site has since been restored. Even in his absence, the lost cause fights on.
On a tangential note, news of his death reminded of a funeral in my hometown some years ago for a man of the same surname. “Packie Richards,” we had known him as, although I hardly knew him at all. It was mainly on account of his son, Gerry Richards, who used to operate one of the old wooden threshing mills – a fond if distant memory of my childhood – that I was there.
But I was late arriving from Dublin and, having ensconced myself at the back of a packed church, I noted with concern that the priest was referring repeatedly to a late “Patrick Callan”. Was this the wrong funeral, I began to wonder, remembering that the family lived some way out of town and might have been from a different parish.
By now I was scanning the congregation for familiar figures. But I had been too long away from home to recognise many people from the front, never mind the back. The evidence remained inconclusive. It being too late to go anywhere else, however, I stayed put until the end.
Then, as mourners filed out, I saw my brother and asked quietly: “Who’s Patrick Callan?” Not for the first time, he looked at me as if I had two heads and replied: “That would be the man whose funeral you’re at.” “Packie Richards?” said I. “Yes,” said he. And that was when, after many years, I finally learned that Richards was not the family’s surname.
It was more a nickname, to distinguish these Callans from the area’s many others, just as – due to another local oversupply, we were known as the “College” McNallys (nothing to do with universities, alas, only the presence of a hedge-school on the paternal land-holding). The difference was that “Richards” was a patronymic, presumably inherited from a male ancestor whose first name was Richard.
And that’s where the surname Richards comes from too. It implies that the bearer is a son or daughter – however many generations removed – of a Richard. Which must also mean that there was an apostrophe before the “s” once, or at least that one was implied, but that even in the case of the great apostrophe champion John Richards, it had long fallen from use.
It is to the French that we owe the use of apostrophes in English, but the word itself comes from ancient Greece. In Greek drama, a strophe was a verse sung and danced in one direction by the chorus. An antistrophe was when they reversed, physically and rhetorically, to reply to the previous stanza. And an apostrophe was when an actor turned aside to say something, ostensibly addressing nobody.
The verb “to apostrophise” can thereby mean either to put an apostrophe in something, where something else is missing, or to declaim in a theatrical manner, to an audience missing or otherwise.
But when Mark Twain, for example, uses it in The Innocents Abroad, to lampoon pretentious tourists waxing loudly about Leonardo da Vinci’s (then much faded) The Last Supper, there is a double-edged absence. The speakers in that case do have an audience, albeit an involuntary one. But the eaves-dropping Twain is amused at their talent for “apostrophizing wonders and perfections which had faded out of the picture […] 100 years before they were born”.
Anyway, as suggested earlier, life may be too short for worrying about apostrophes. So I’ll end here by noting that today is May 1st, a date that – despite appearances – has nothing to with the international distress signal: “Mayday”.
Not only is that a corruption of the original French spelling, it also has a missing apostrophe. The appeal implicit in the term is “m’aider”. As another popular expression puts it, so help me.