Apostrophes & Irish Blarney

Desktop4Happy St. Patrick’s Day: What’s in a name? An apostrophe, that’s what.

It isn’t unusual for Colleen and me to take a meeting and have a new acquaintance comment on the very – well – Irishness of our names and demeanors. And let’s face it. There’s a whole lotta Irish that wanders in and out of the doors at PPB world headquarters. The extended Dunn family features not only Colleen but Erin, Brigid, Cathleen, Maggie, and Keegan. The extended O’Sullivan family counters with Donal, Irene, Kathleen, Maureen, and Agnes. There are Kellys, Kelsys, Clares, Colins, Shanes, and Kevins. And the two families share many vintage Lives of the Saints favorites: Joseph, Michael, James, Peter, John/Jack/Ian, Patrick/Patricia, Francis/Frances, Steven, Ann, Theresa, Jude, and enough variations of the Blessed Mother (Mary, Marie, Mary Ellen, Marietta, Marianne) to accommodate the most devout Marian sodality member.

We share other Irish attributes: deficiencies of the dermatological variety, sunglass dependence to shield our ever-squinting baby blues and greens, and a certain sentimental fondness for the pre-Godspell hymns of our forefathers: Holy God, We Praise Thy Name, Faith of Our Fathers, and Holy Holy Holy. Go ahead, have a listen. Perhaps you’ll hear the unique musical heritage of the new immigrant, singing to a different time and place, in a Church that had not yet populated the chancel with guitars and tambourines.

But no matter how many Bing Crosby movies our two families may have independently watched on opposite coasts, no matter how many Kennedy tragedies shadowed our sense of Irish-American accomplishment and belonging, no matter how often our large clans welcomed another cousin into the fold, our families have one major difference.

The Apostrophe.

You see, not only did the Dunns make it all the way to the sunny, surfable shores of the Pacific, they also had the great good sense to abandon the unwieldy unanglicised Ó Duinn for the simple elegant Dunn. The O’Sullivans (or Ó Súilleabháins), on the other hand, stuck to that defining apostrophe like they stuck to the hardscrabble shores of Cape Cod, so bleakly beautiful yet so Irish. My dad, an admitted purveyor of blarney, claimed that Sullivans were sheep stealers and had dropped the O to hide. I never thought to ask Dad how a name change might disguise a thief. Nevertheless, the Sullivans and the Dunns had the premonitory foresight to drop the apostrophe which, truth be told, was a British conceit from the start. But when you’ve lived your whole life with a punctuation anomaly, fighting the good fight is just second nature.

So here’s the part where, if your name isn’t O’Brien, O’Toole, O’Connor, or, for that matter, N’Gouamba, you’ll have no insight into the difficulties that the digital age has wrought upon the apostrophe’d who walk among you. Because you’ll have no way of knowing that the programmers of the vast majority of software and internet sites simply didn’t and still don’t create code that recognizes surnames with apostrophes. It’s impossible to create an e-mail address or title a Microsoft document with my name properly spelled. And my logins, my credit cards, and even my license may well include any of the names Sullivan, OSullivan, O Sullivan, Osullivan, O.Sullivan. How do I know which is which? I don’t. I just guess. Yup, I’m the one stalling the line at the DMV, the doctor’s office, and the bookstore, saying, “Maybe you should look under S.”

Now perhaps you’re thinking I’ve “got my Irish up,” what with St. Paddy’s Day around the corner and the annual avalanche of “patio furniture” jokes heading in my direction. But beware. The apostrophe is the endangered species of punctuation. So goes Birmingham, so goes my last name, so goes that manuscript you’ve been diligently proofreading. And if you think this is a bit of hyperbolic Fenian malarkey, I quote a recent interaction with a Wells Fargo new-account manager, who politely asked, “What’s an apostrophe?”

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Raise a glass, as we will, to the apostrophe, its humble O’Sullivan defenders, and those clever, provident Dunns.