The Death of the Apostrophe?

May 13, 2020

I don’t know about you but I just had the Best Mothers’ Day ever!  While I have a regular, socially-distanced, hiking date with my younger daughter, Gillian, it had been many weeks since I had been in the same air space as my elder daughter, Emily and her kids, Owen and Morgan.

Mothers’ Day 2002

On Sunday, to my surprise and delight, they arrived without warning, setting up a tray table with their own drinks and snacks, while Jeff (who was in on the conspiracy) set up two chairs for us, a hockey stick-length-and-a-half apart.  For an hour and a half, we told stories, of mothering and being mothered, of the multiple generations of women who have given us birth and nurtured both our bodies and our spirits.  By the time they left, we were all soaked through and cold from the relentless snow that fell, dampening the giant card of paint and photos that they had created for me, but not our mutual joy.

My mother was, how shall I say it? a keener on grammar and punctuation.  And I had Miss Sinden in Grade Six, who finished the work begun in me by my mother.  I have had to work on the annoyance that surfaces in me whenever the default US spelling built into all computers everywhere draws an insistent red line under any words with aberrant ‘u’s—neighbour, harbour, for example—or doubled consonants—travellers, jewellery, etc. A daily, hourly reminder of who runs the world.  (Before you jump in and tell me to change the setting to Canadian spelling, it is often overridden and every time I have to add a perfectly-spelled word to the ‘dictionary’ as if it’s some strange thing, well, you know.  As for punctuation, forget it. Spell Check has never heard of the Oxford comma, never mind where to place quotation marks.)

Only occasionally a case of life and death

It was probably my mother who gave me Lynne Truss’ delightful book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  Proper punctuation has become, she writes, ‘an endangered species’.  She offers the example of a panda that walks into a café, orders a sandwich, eats it and then fires two shots into the air.  Asked to explain himself, the panda points to an (incompetently-punctuated) reference book:  Panda.  Large black and white bear-like animal, native to China; eats, shoots and leaves.  She concludes:  So, punctuation really does matter, even if it is only occasionally a matter of life and death. 

I should note that Lynne and her millions of fans are British.  Sadly, the struggle for, yes, I’ll say it, proper spelling and punctuation is being lost on this side of the Atlantic. But it was in the UK, in February of this year, that the Death of the Apostrophe was formally announced as the Association for the Annihilation of the Aberrant Apostrophe closed up shop.

But seriously.

In 1870, Julia Ward Howe wrote her  ‘Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World’, calling upon women everywhere to rise up in the cause of world peace. The US Civil War had devastated the American landscape and deepened divisions between the North and the South.  While the men fought, the women were otherwise employed.  A poet, reformer, feminist and an abolitionist, Julia Ward Howe was a fiery speaker and writer, she insisted that  ‘We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies.  Our husbands will not come to us, reeking of carnage, for caresses and applause.  Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience!’ Her cry was directed to every woman, every mother, across her country—and the globe.  ‘We, the women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’  Her call for an annual ‘Mothers’ Peace Day’ was realised in 1873.

Anna Jarvis

In 1858, in the face of very high infant mortality rates, Ann Reeves Jarvis began organising Mothers’ Work Day Clubs to train young women in the skills of sanitation and nutrition.  Following the end of the Civil War, she set tables and space to bring battlefield enemies back together again. This ‘Mothers’ Friendship Day’ ended with veterans from both sides weeping and embracing for the first time in years.  Two years after her death in May, 1905, her daughter, Anna Jarvis, organised a memorial service for her mother.  A year later, the first formal ‘Mother’s Day’ took place, with Anna distributing white carnations to all of the mothers present as well as their children. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson declared the now-trademarked (by Anna) Mother’s Day a national holiday. Anna was pleased that Wilson’s decree had the apostrophe before the ‘s’, each family responsible to honour their one and only mother.

Aiming to create a day as a ‘private acknowledgement’, Anna Jarvis’ struggle to beat back the forces of commercialisation (cards, candy and flowers) failed miserably; she died alone and penniless, her fortune spent in fruitless litigation.

When I was sending Mothers’ Day greetings to all and sundry, particularly by text, my device stubbornly refused to accept the apostrophe at the end of the word, suggesting instead either ’s or ’s’.  It would take three or four attempts before I won.  Interesting.  The history of the placement of the apostrophe in this story is not a mere sidebar; it is central to, emblematic of, what happened to an event meant to call women to rise up! It was an urgent cry for a withdrawal of feminine consent from the masculine project of war. Julia Ward Howe’s Mothers’ Peace Day was quietly set aside, largely forgotten.  The individual mother-specific Day that Woodrow Wilson, bearer of political power, captured and helped to encase in flowers and saccharine, was Mother’s Day.  The apostrophe makes a difference.  And it holds, after all, life-and-death significance. 

Don’t get me wrong. I welcome with deep delight the hundreds of people who descended on my Facebook description and photos of the snowy Mothers’ Day that sneaked up on me this past weekend.  My children know that birthdays and Mothers’ Days are both specific and universal, edging out the thoroughly-hijacked  Christmas. Still, daughters and grandchildren, husband, food and drink, games and gifts of stuff, time and attention are a recipe for Christmas magic, too.

Mothers’ Day 2020


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