Ghost storties [sic] of Henry James

March 26, 2014

This was on my shelf a while before I spotted the intruder:

Ghost storties (sic) of Henry James - Wordsworth Editions, typo on spine

I love a good ghost storty, and since it’s Henry James I don’t expect these will be very gorty. The book was published by Wordsworth Editions in 2001: not their crowning glorty.

Imagine their fright, though, when they finally spotted it. I’ll be glad if there’s anything in the book as scary as that.


Waterstones’ apostrophe: a victim of rebranding

January 12, 2012

We’ve been here before — with Birmingham City Council and assorted businesses and place names — and we’ll be here again. A prominent organisation, this time Waterstones, has officially dropped the apostrophe from its name, sparking outrage from self-anointed protectors of the language.

Waterstones’ managing director James Daunt said: (PDF)

Waterstones without an apostrophe is, in a digital world of URLs and email addresses, a more versatile and practical spelling. It also reflects an altogether truer picture of our business today which, while created by one, is now built on the continued contribution of thousands of individual booksellers.

This seems entirely reasonable to me. The fact that it’s a bookseller, of course, compounds the agony for the is-nothing-sacred crowd, who last year worked themselves into a state of pseudo-grief and fury over the non-death of the serial comma, and who now protest this latest insult on Twitter and Facebook and in comments on news websites.

John Richards, of the Apostrophe Protection Society, is predictably unhappy with Waterstones: “You would really hope that a bookshop is the last place to be so slapdash with English.” If the quote is accurate, his use of slapdash is itself slapdash: the word means hasty or careless, and I’m quite sure Waterstones are being anything but.

Martin MacConnol, in a sensible post about the furore, points out that Waterstones’ name “is a brand mark, and thus doesn’t follow the normal rules of grammar”. David Marsh at the Guardian says it’s “no catastrophe”. But he recommends carrying a felt-tip pen and Tipp-Ex to tackle public lapses in punctuation, à la Lynne Truss, which sounds like a recipe for hypercorrection and Pedantry Gone Wild.

One blogger, whose identity I’ll spare, lamented the news thus:

So now you know: apostrophes that used to feature in Waterstone’s will shuffle off to reappear in genitive itsas if to spite me. They might also find a niche in the aberrant “s-form” Tesco’s (from Tesco), which Lorraine Woodward studied in her interesting dissertation “The supermarket storm: an investigation into an aspect of variation”.

My favourite reaction was from Waterstones of Oxford Street, whose Twitter account posted the photo below (cropped; source unknown), followed by a series of faux-poignant tweets about the apostrophe’s last day at work with the company. “A victim of rebranding”, indeed.

By the standards of common punctuation marks, the apostrophe has had a short existence bedevilled by instability and inconsistency. As Christina Cavella and Robin Kernodle’s paper “How the Past Affects the Future: The Story of the Apostrophe” (PDF) shows, there has always been disagreement and uncertainty about how best to use it.

So no, this is nothing to get upset about, and language is not going to the dogs. The fuss over Waterstones’ dropped apostrophe will soon blow over for all but a few committed sticklers, to be relived next time a big brand or institution puts pragmatism over fastidious punctuation. Best get used to it.

Updates:

Two excellent posts on Waterstones and the use and history of the apostrophe: Michael Rosen explores the politics of punctuation [via]; and David Crystal notes that English writing did fine for almost a millennium without the mark.

John E. McIntyre weighs in at You Don’t Say (subscription). Apostrophe usage is “a mess and a muddle”, he writes, and resolving it all is “a doomed venture”. So we shouldn’t fret over brands and signs and menus but instead focus on our own writing. He concludes with a fine line — “You can’t weed the world, but you can cultivate your garden” — that echoes an analogy by C. S. Lewis I wrote about recently.

In my post, I avoided linking to any (of the many) tiresome, end-is-nigh reactions to this story. But Mark Liberman at Language Log has gone a different and amusing route, ironically playing up the Daily Mail‘s apocalyptic panic by recruiting no less a barbarian than Shakespeare.

Also at Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum rejects the argument that apostrophes are needed to avoid ambiguity. He finds it sad and irritating that people

[try] to represent themselves as educated thinking defenders of the English language by mouthing off cluelessly about grammatical topics, voicing allegations about “incorrectness” and “ambiguity” that cannot withstand even a few seconds of thought. There is nothing whatever about the decision on the new Waterstones trade name that relates to grammar or grammatical error at all.


English As She Is Broke

November 9, 2011

Its delicious unconscious ridiculousness, and its enchanting naïveté, as are supreme and unapproachable, in their way, as are Shakespeare’s sublimities. Whatsoever is perfect in its kind, in literature, is imperishable: nobody can imitate it successfully . . .

So wrote Mark Twain in his introduction to Pedro Carolino’s English As She Is Spoke (1883), a Portuguese-English conversational guide infamous for its incoherent translations and memorable incongruities.

Every page of this short book is rich in non sequiturs and grammatical mishaps that border on the poetic, the cumulative effect of which is a rare and unpredictable entertainment.

Will you this?
Let us amuse rather to the fishing.
The coffee is good in all time.
You hear the bird’s gurgling? Which pleasure! which charm!
Comb-me quickly; don’t put me so much pomatum.
He burns one’s self the brains.
You come too rare.
I row upon the belly on the back and between two waters.

Carolino’s book offers vocabularies, phrases, dialogues, letters and anecdotes, all of them delightfully mangled. There is a pronunciation guide that renders washerwoman as uox’-eur-ummeune, and a list of proverbs that turns “A rolling stone gathers no moss” into “The stone as roll not heap up not foam”.

If it were twice as accurate, it would not be half as beguiling.

The book’s history is also muddled. Collins Library published a new edition in 2002 that followed an early edition in crediting Carolino and José da Fonseca as authors. But Fonseca appears to have had no involvement except that his own work inspired Carolino’s awful effort. (I use the word inspired loosely: Carolino spoke no English, and borrowed wholesale from one of Fonseca’s phrasebooks.)

After linguist Alexander MacBride got a copy of the Collins Library edition, he contacted the publishers to question the dual authorship. He felt that a grave injustice had been done to Fonseca:

Not only was his little phrasebook ripped off, and transformed into an eternal monument of linguistic incompetence — he, the victim of the outrage, is remembered by posterity as its author!

Further digging by MacBride threw more light on how the confusion came about. It’s a nice bit of historical research. He found that Fonseca was “a serious and competent scholar” who had an excellent command of English and was “contemptuous of shoddy and amateurish conversation guides and phrasebooks”.

So English As She Is Spoke — Carolino’s “Jest in Sober Earnest” — would presumably have earned Fonseca’s contempt, but we can enjoy it on its own inimitable terms. After all,

A little learneds are happies enough for to may to satisfy their fancies on the literature.

You can download English As She Is Spoke in various formats at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive.

Put your confidence at my. How do you can it to deny?


Fashionable ambiguity

August 15, 2011

For a few years in the 1950s, independent publishing company André Deutsch rented the top two-thirds of a doctor’s house in London. Diana Athill, then an editor at the company, describes them as “happy years, but still a touch amateurish: did proper publishers have to put a board over a bath to make a packing-bench?” (Stet: An Editor’s Life*).

During its time in that location, however, the company did well enough to buy Derek Verschoyle’s firm and to move into its premises in Soho. Athill recalls one consequence of the deal:

One of the more burdensome books we inherited from him was a pointless compilation called Memorable Balls, a title so much tittered over that we thought of leaving it out when we were arranging our stand at The Sunday Times’s first book fair. Finally one copy was shoved into an inconspicuous corner – where the Queen Mother, who had opened the fair, instantly noticed it. Picking it up, she exclaimed with delight: ‘Oh, what a tempting title!’ André insisted that it was his confusion over this that made him drop her a deep curtsey instead of a bow.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, Memorable Balls has nothing to do with sport or anatomy but concerns formal dances. It was edited by James Laver, an author and fashion historian who came up with a system he called Laver’s Law (Taste and Fashion, 1937) to describe popular attitudes to fashion:

Was the author’s tongue partly in cheek when he composed this table? I don’t have a copy of Taste and Fashion, or any of Laver’s other books, so I can’t infer his tone from context.

It is in any case a revealing list of adjectives, some of which I often see applied to language usages. “Language is like dress,” wrote Simeon Potter in Our Language. “We vary our dress to suit the occasion.”

In honour of Laver’s Memorable Balls, I propose Balls’ Law: Bawdy double entendres never fall fully out of fashion.

.

* For another anecdote from Athill’s marvellous memoir, see this earlier post.


A known unknown in the past future of publishing

February 7, 2011

In the 1970s the independent book publisher André Deutsch sold 40% of his eponymous company to Time-Life. Diana Athill, who edited for André Deutsch, wrote a wonderful memoir Stet: An Editor’s Life in which she described the experience as odd and comic: “They made no attempt to intervene in any of our publishing plans. And they drove André mad.”

Athill recalls an early meeting that purported to establish the mutual benefits of the deal. Puzzled by the corporation’s apparent altruism, she asked what was in it for them.

After a fractional pause, a gentle blast of pure waffle submerged the question, and I was left believing what in fact I continued to believe: that they didn’t know. Shrewd predatory calculations might be underlying all this, but it seemed unlikely. ‘Can it be,’ I asked André after the meeting, ‘that they are just silly?’ To which he answered crisply: ‘Yes.’ I think he had already started to wonder what on earth he was doing, but couldn’t see how to back out of it.

Despite their lack of interference, Time-Life naturally expected progress reports, every so often asking André Deutsch for details about, say, their publishing plans for the next five years. But given the unpredictable, even chaotic nature of independent book publishing – and maybe especially given the nature of the firm being asked, and of its owner – this request was also seen as a bit daft.

At a party in New York, Athill met the person who functioned as the link between the two companies, and she inferred that Time-Life just wanted some figures to satisfy their accounts people: the figures didn’t even have to make sense. Relaying this insight to André made him “even madder. It was their silliness that was getting to him, not their asking for information.” How then to respond? Athill quotes from accountant Philip Tammer’s letter to Time-Life:

What we will be publishing in five years’ time depends on what’s going on in the head of some unknown person probably sitting in a garret, and we don’t know the address of that garret.

I don’t know what Philip Tammer looks like – Athill describes him as “the dearest, kindest, most long-suffering, most upright and most loyal accountant anyone ever had” – but I can imagine his expression of consummate deadpan as he composed this reply. Ask a silly question…

Deutsch was, to his relief and delight, able to buy the shares back a couple of years after selling them. He talked about the experience, and a good deal more, in an interview with Naim Attallah.


Unnatural ‘preternaturally’, naturally

July 14, 2009

Last Sunday night I was reading a story called Oke of Okehurst by Vernon Lee in an old Penguin edition of The Supernatural Omnibus, Volume 1: Hauntings and Horror, a terrific collection of occult stories edited and introduced by the enigmatic Montague Summers. (Many of its stories are available online here.)

Lee’s tale is terrifically told, extravagantly descriptive yet precisely controlled, and with a mounting sense of inescapable doom. There is a wonderful passage wherein the narrator, a painter, describes the unconventional beauty of the central character, Mrs Alice Oke:

I don’t believe, you know, that even the greatest painter can show what is the real beauty of a very beautiful woman in the ordinary sense: Titian’s and Tintoretto’s women must have been miles handsomer than they have made them. Something – and that the very essence – always escapes, perhaps because real beauty is as much a thing in time – a thing like music, a succession, a series – as in space. Mind you, I am speaking of a woman beautiful in the conventional sense. Imagine, then, how much more so in the case of a woman like Alice Oke; and if the pencil and brush, imitating each line and tint, can’t succeed, how is it possible to give even the vaguest notion with mere wretched words – words possessing only a wretched abstract meaning, an impotent conventional association? To make a long story short, Mrs. Oke of Okehurst was, in my opinion, to the highest degree exquisite and strange, – an exotic creature, whose charm you can no more describe than you could bring home the perfume of some newly discovered tropical flower by comparing it with the scent of a cabbage-rose or a lily.

This excerpt can be found on pp. 122–124 here.

Further along is a line that remained with me for a less romantic reason: I wasn’t sure whether it was a mistake or an unusual usage:

It was Mrs Oke, her eyes prenaturally bright, and her whole face lit up with a bold, perverse smile.

Here is a photo:

Stan Carey - prenaturally and preternaturally in Oke of Okehurst

It seemed to me that the word prenaturally ought to have been preternaturally. The word prenaturally was unknown to me, and seemed a strange formation, while preternaturally would make sense in the context. In other words it appeared to be a publishing error. (I have seen worse.) However, I was prepared to delay judgement until I could confirm the matter either way. For one thing, the story was written in the late 19th century, and many a word has changed its form since then; for another thing, I was tucked up in bed.

The next day I searched several dictionaries for prenatural(ly), all in vain, while various Google searches returned only a small number of obscure or anomalous usages. It didn’t take long to find several online copies of Oke of Okehurst, and sure enough they all contained the phrase “her eyes preternaturally bright”. Maybe I ought to have searched for that phrase in the first place, but I did want to give Penguin Books the benefit of the doubt. Anyway, in a book full of mysteries it was a pleasure to find a bonus one to solve by myself, even if it was less lurid and more mundane than the others.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,837 other followers