Friday, 22 March 2013

Tempora obscuratio mea

The University Arms. The OUP
colophon shows just the open book: 
This post refers to a pair of articles in last Saturday's Times, but it is hidden by those obscurantists behind a paywall. (Interesting word, 'obscurantist'; think of darkness, 'obscurity'. My first full-time employers, OUP, have a colophon that shows an open book inscribed with the words - the opening words of Psalm 27- Dominus illuminatio mea: 'The lord [is] my light':

Domimina nustio illumea - oh how we larfed! The spreading of light, that's what text-based communication is about. Not paywalls. Tempora obscuratio mea - perhaps that should be The Times' motto. [And I KNOW OUP would have wanted an italicized The in my opening line; the Hart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.]

The first article is a news item on p. 11 of the hardcopy about a decision by Mid Devon Local Authority not to use apostrophes on road names; in fact. it is making official a de facto actuality that is not unique to Devon. When I moved to my current address, in 1984, I noted (with slight but admittedly risible annoyance) that my new home was in 'Spencers Wood' [sic - no apostrophe]. And in 1979 I learnt (with similar slight but admittedly risible annoyance) that book designers don't like apostrophes in display work, thinking they're visually fussy.

But my late twentieth-century sightings of apostropho-clasm are far from original. GBS wrote
I have written aint, dont, havent, shant, shouldnt, and wont for twenty years with perfect impunity, using the apostrophe only when its omission would suggest another word: for example hell for he’ll. There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of papering [sic, in the Otrops article I link to below for further research. I regret having no time to find a primary source; I suspect Shaw may have used the more meaningful 'peppering'] pages with these uncouth bacilli.
(Isn't that bacilli marvellous? Bacilli were in the news at the time, because of discoveries in connection with these stick-like [Latin baculum  'little staff'; there's that '-ulus/m' again, denoting a diminutive, as noted in a previous post] microscopic objects. Shaw was a contemporary of Fleming – who was born before Shaw but outlived him. One can imagine Shaw reading a newspaper or scientific leaflet illustrated with a slide covered with these things looking like chocolate vermicelli - and there's another metaphor, 'little worms', but that would be a digression too far). You can read more about apostrophes here, if you're that way inclined. I really can't get awfully excited about this sort of thing.

 But one of the editorialists at The Times can oh yes. No names, no pack-drill, but I have my suspicions (think of the word 'pray' tacked on coyly after  questions in the Literary Quiz). How's this for blustering grandiloquence?
Its great virtue as a mark of punctuation [ed: my underline: useful bit of clarification here, in case we thought he was talking about its great virtue as... a table ornament?] is that it aids clarity and dispels confusion.... The residents of Mid Devon should have the uncontested right [best sort that, 'uncontested'; but has anyone contested it?] to share those benefits, [are we dealing with a Human Right here? Oh no, it's just for those happy few who have a winning ticket in the lottery of life:] which are enjoyed by the rest of the English-speaking world.
 A case in point is the unbelievably significant 'Bakers View'
The apostrophe is a punctuation mark [phew, that possible table ornament was getting uncomfortably central in my mind, glad he's cleared that up] that drives out ambiguity [shouldn't that have been 'casteth out ambiguity'?] It allows the reader to tell immediately [useful word that, 'immediately'; clearly, the apostrophe is not one of those insidious delayed-action punctuation marks] if a word or name is a singular possessive ('Baker's View'), a plural possessive ('Bakers' View') or a plural noun followed  by a verb ('Bakers View'). [Incidentally, that last one is meaningless as captalized; given the correct lower-case v, there are only two possible meanings.]
 As it happens, the news item explains that 'Bakers View' is  a new road or building overlooking a bit of greenery already called 'Bakers Park'. So if you wanted to be really anal about it there should be no apostrophe; but I don't. I don't think sane people do.

But maybe this bit of verbiage-generation doesn't happen behind the paywall. The repetitive and unnecessarily verbose editorial may have  been 'written' in response to a need to fill the space (about a third of the available – editorial – space). I'll never know. But I do recognize a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. Language changes. 'Change and decay in all around I see.' It's a bit of a shame about the fate of the apostrophe. Life goes on. 'Point final' as my old French master used to say at  the end of a Dictée. I think it meant something like 'End of.'


Update 2013.03.24 PS * I was right about peppering. The source is George Bernard Shaw, "Notes on the Clarendon Press Rules for Compositors and Readers." The Author, 1901. (It is a happy coincidence that Shaw's words come from a review of the forerunner of the very rules that I mentioned with respect to another bit of quaint arbitrariness – the italicized The in The Times though not in, for example, 'the New York Times'.) I have this information from a fuller and more reliable piece on the apostrophe than the Ostrop piece I cite in the main post. For fuller information, see here. I've taken this opportunity also to update the usage figures in the section that follows.
* Update 2013.04.05: It's here.

Update: 2017.08.12.12:05 – Deleted old footer

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