The holiday season is pretty much over (in the United States at least) and we all have to begin coddling ourselves out of our winter slumbers and back into that doleful state of “work as usual.”
So to help jumpstart your cerebral engines for the year, I thought I’d offer up a few thoughts about the humble apostrophe and its use—or, I should say conspicuous lack of use—in Blade Speak.
To begin, a quick refresher on apostrophes:
In most Latin alphabet fonts, the apostrophe is a punctuation mark that is presented as a superscript comma. In English punctuation, the apostrophe has three main uses, which are:
1) for marking the omission of letters from a word,
2) for marking the possessive case, and
3) for marking the plural form of certain words and glyphs.
Interestingly, rollerbladers seem well-content to stick to the second and third usages, but the first has been conspicuously discarded from Blade Speak. To get to the reasons why this is relevant, let me tell you a quick story.
On the first day of the year, my friend Jarrod and I were cruising through Austin on our way to a friendly handicapped rail that several of our local guys agreed would make for a nice inaugural warm up session for the year. On the way, Jarrod and I were listening to an album of Christmas Songs I’ve had in the car to help shape my mood for the season*.
Since both of us were nursing hangovers from the night before, not much was being said. But, just a few blocks before we arrived at the skate spot, a particular lyric from O Come, O Come Emmanuel was striking to Jarrod who promptly asked the question: “Did they just say ‘Give them victory OR the grave?’”
They didn’t, I explained. They said “Give them victory O’ER the grave.”
It’s hard to fault anyone who can’t hear the difference because typically there isn’t a difference to be heard. It seems like a very strange thing (to most people) to omit a consonant sound in the middle of a word—especially where that omission potentially changes the meaning of the sentence or utterance as it did for Jarrod. But, for most Americans, this usage isn’t as uncommon as you might think. In fact, it’s exactly as common as mainstream professional sporting events that begin with the singing of the first verse of the Star Spangled Banner:
O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Here, we see two uses of the word o’er, which seem to be intended in what some might perceive as the classic usage of over—meanings something like “physically above.”
But that understanding raises a couple of interesting problems for rollerblading discourse and both of them have to do with everyone’s least favorite notion: Prescriptivism.
Prescriptivism is the idea that there is a “right way” that things should be done; an insistence that everything must be neat and tidy and correct. The problem is, very few things in human affairs (especially rollerblading) are readily enforceable that way.
The first problem o’er raises—at least with respect to the Star Spangled Banner—is that the semantics are wrong. According to one dictionary I looked at, o’er is meant to be used as a temporal preposition, not a spatial one. Thus, according to the Prescriptivists, it would be correct to say something like “O’er the last five years, I’ve gotten hurt about a half-dozen times,” but it would incorrect to say “The cat jumped o’er the fence.”
In the Star Spangled Banner, both usages of o’er are spatial, that is, having to do with space—which should be a no-no.
But, as I have said before, I am not a Prescriptivist, and so I therefore don’t believe that there should ever be an official, correct form of a language—not even rollerblading language. A language is (always) subject to the needs of the culture and people who use it. Prescriptivism, then, is only ever a demonstration of power—the ability to force people to abide to a convention.
So, the next time you get corrected for using some word or phrase incorrectly, you can answer appropriately with a long, emphatic “harrumph!” because being “proper” is only ever necessary if you have to abide by it for the purpose of appeasing your audience.
The second issue that o’er raises for us has a great deal more to do directly with rollerblading. If you recall, the first usage that I listed for the humble apostrophe (above) was to be a placeholder for omitted letters in a word. We see this all the time in English language contractions like
Where’d (apostrophe stands for the omitted “di-” in “Where did”)
O’clock (apostrophe stands for the omitted “-f” in “Of Clock”)
‘Twas (apostrophe stands for the omitted “I” in “It was”).
In rollerblading discourse though, we see the same phenomenon of letter omission all the time in the form of abbreviated terms like “True top porn”—which is short (obviously) for the trick name Truespin Topside Pornstar. The interesting thing though, is that rollerblading has not adopted the conventional (or even Prescriptivist) habit of employing the apostrophe for omissions.
If we did, we would be writing trick names something like this: True’top Porn’
But we don’t.
I find this to be somewhat strange though, because rollerbladers, as we saw with the Modernisms post, can be some of the most Prescriptivist and rule-hungry people around. So why would we miss the change to enforce a set a rules that are just waiting to be employed—waiting to be used to divide bladers “in-the-know” from the uninitiated?
I’d like offer a few thoughts on the matter and then ask you to add any additional reasons you can think of in the comments below.
First, and perhaps most unlikely, is that rollerbladers have spotted an opportunity to cast off the derisive shackles of enforcing power and status by using their knowledge to correct the uninitiated. But I’d say it’s safe to rule this one out since that behavior continues on into the New Year with the speed and force of a bowling ball rolling down a steep hill.
We didn’t at the stroke of midnight three nights ago somehow magically transform into a harmonious group of people ever-supportive and steeped in a rich tradition of kindness and compassion. Psshaw!
Second, and much more likely, is simply that rollerbladers are largely ignorant of the apostrophe’s great power to omit letters in conjunction with a centuries-old English language convention. It’s hard to blame anyone in this respect though. Most people probably haven’t ever taken the time to realize that the apostrophe is a placeholder for missing letters; they probably just think it is “what-you-do” when you want to stick two words together.
A third option is much more in tune with the expectations of usage-based (as opposed to Prescriptivist) linguists who believe that communities only abide to certain conventions if it makes their lives easier, or makes their language work better for them.
In this respect, it makes a great deal of sense that poets and lyric writers would employ the apostrophe to eliminate letters because doing so routinely offers the chance to make a word or phrase fit a rhyme scheme or vocal cadence—rollerbladers, alternatively, gain no such benefit from our alphabetic omissions.
We likely omit letters, morphemes and lexemes from our trick names simply because they are often so long and cumbersome—and that to me is probably the most likely reason our trick names don’t include apostrophes. We want our terms to be easier to say and the best way to do that is simply to drop the parts of words that we don’t think are necessary to communicate meaning. Adding the Prescriptivist’s apostrophe is counterproductive precisely because we’re trying to take bits out, not put more bits back in.
Surely, there are more reasons for the omission-apostrophe to have NOT found a home in rollerblading discourse and I invite you to share any thought you have on the matter because, to me, this exercise in investigating “things not seen” is still a useful one because it serves as an excellent reminder to pay attention to all the things that are absent from our lives as often as they are absent or omitted from our observations.
What we omit is often just as important as what we include. So what better advise could there be for the beginning of a new year? To grab your backslides?
Thanks for reading.
*I’ve purposely omitted any chatter about the particular album of Christmas Songs Jarrod and I were listening to because Chris Duke and I seem to have pretty well beaten to death the horse of atheism-in-blading for the time being. If you’re still dying to know what I’m talking about, HMU on the Facebooks.