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Today's Word



Jul 1, 2019
This week’s theme
Whose what?

This week’s words
cat's pajamas
Zeno's paradox
Godwin's law
child's play
Plato's cave

apostrophe abuse
Well, thank’s for the welcome.

Previous week’s theme
Words originating in horses
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with Anu Garg

Do you know the name of that Shakespeare comedy about a king swearing to avoid contact with women? How do you spell out the title of the play? With two apostrophes, one, or none?

Love’s Labour’s Lost
Love’s Labours Lost
Loves Labour’s Lost
Loves Labours Lost

When the play was first published in 1598, it was titled as Loues Labors Lost and it has since been published with various combinations of apostrophes.*

Remind me again, is it Mother’s Day, Mothers’ Day, or Mothers Day? On second thought, don’t!

Why don’t we just get rid of the apostrophe?

You may be thinking: What? Et tu, Anu? You were supposed to be on the other side. I thought you were a defender of the purity of language.

OK, let’s look at the exquisite mess that is apostrophe.

A possessive takes an apostrophe (king’s), except when it doesn’t. Possessives its, his, hers, ours, yours, and theirs don’t employ the apostrophe and the Earth still goes around the Sun. Perhaps we should cut a little slack when we see someone confusing the words its and it’s. In fact, with an apostrophe, it’s can have two possibilities: it is or it has.

As seen in it’s, the “apostrophe s” construction doesn’t necessarily mean a possessive. This abbreviation can mean any of the following:

is (it’s cold)
has (he’s gone)
us (let’s go)
does (what’s she do?)

A little squiggly mark, and so much trouble. Death to the apostrophe! With apostrophe in the discard bin, greengrocers can go back to making sure their stuff (such as, potato’s and tomato’s)** is fresh, little kids can go back to rejoicing in the beauty of English spelling (is it height, hieght, or hyt?), and hiring managers can go back to finding some other reason to reject a job application (a degree from Harvard is nice, but a resume in Comic Sans?).

What about those of us with black markers in our hands, defacing correcting signs and defending the world from apostrophe catastrophe, you ask. Well, you’ll have to find something more fulfilling and productive in life. Have you brushed your cat’s (or cats’ or cats) teeth lately?

Some day this world would be free of metastatic cancers, narcissistic con men, and the apostrophe (I can dream, can’t I?). Until that happens, it’s my solemn duty to advise you that every term featured in A.Word.A.Day this week takes an apostrophe.

*As it happens, Love’s Labour’s Lost is the first instance we know of the word “apostrophe” being used to indicate the omission of a letter. By the way, this is also the play that features the longest word Shakespeare ever used.

**But, but, but, if we get rid of the apostrophe, we’d lose the distinction between a possessive and a plural! Well, I have two things to say here:
  1. In the beginning an apostrophe was used simply to indicate the omission of a letter (o’er for over). So tomato’s was a perfectly fine way to write the plural of that vegetable/fruit. The spelling tomato’s indicated that the letter e was omitted.
  2. We still use the apostrophe to indicate a plural in some cases. For example: How many i’s are in the word “distinction”?

cat’s pajamas (or pyjamas)

(CATS puh-JAH-muhz)

noun: Something or someone truly excellent.

From cat + pajamas, from Hindi/Urdu pajama or payjama (loose-fitting trousers), from Persian pay (leg) + jama (garment). Earliest documented use: 1923.

In the 1920s, in the US it was fashionable to coin terms on the pattern of x’s y (where x is an animal) to describe something cool or awesome. Some synonyms of today’s term are bee’s knees, dog’s bollocks, cat’s meow, and cat’s whiskers.

“And while Katie Holmes may think her new fiance Tom Cruise is the cat’s pajamas, moviegoers found his familiarity just a little less thrilling.”
Gregory Levine; Depp Makes Box Office Sweeter for Warner; Forbes (New York); Jul 18, 2005.

Guard within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness. -George Sand [pen name of Amantine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin], novelist (1 Jul 1804-1876)

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