Letter to the Editor – Apostrophes

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Editor, Sir:

With the recent discovery by municipal staff that official lists of place names which are derived from possessive expressions do not include apostrophes, a bit of apostrophic rambling by Patrick Babin, and the use of “Bishop’s Mills,” “Beckett’s Landing,” and “Burritt’s Rapids” in the 21 February edition of the Times, I thought I’d share a couple of verses of the Bishops Mills song which came to me on November 27, 2016, while a public meeting was being offended by appearances of the much-lamented Bishops Mill Apostrophe.

“In Bishops Mills we’re beset by apostrophes
Infesting our name from some ancient invoice.
Let us stand up for the rules of toponomy:
Call for what’s right with a unified voice.
“How many Bishops were meant by possessives?
How many mills did the Middle Creek host?
Let’s not go back through notions regressive,
Confused by past accidents ’til we are lost.”

Notice how my muse has here both stated the case for not having apostrophes in place names, and has provided a major reason for this rule, in the uncertainty of how many of the Bishop family are being memorialized – is it to be “Bishop’s Mills” or the more historically accurate but even uglier “Bishops’ Mills”?

In discussing place names based on possessives, Wikipedia doesn’t mention Canada, but it does say “Place names in the United States do not use the possessive apostrophe… The United States Board on Geographic Names… has deprecated the use of possessive apostrophes since 1890 so as not to show ownership of the place.”

Those who care to wander to www.nrcan.gc.ca/earth-sciences/geography/place-names/about-geographical-names-board-canada/9176, may download “Principles and Procedures for Geographical Naming 2011” by the Geographical Names Board of Canada, where one can read the somewhat more generous rule that “In English, hyphenation and the genitive apostrophe should be approved only when well established and in current usage.”

The Geographic Names board presents only one case of approving a quasi-possessive apostrophe in a name: “Colpoy’s Bay was named for Sir Edward Colpoys, a 19th-century British admiral. Although the apostrophe is not grammatically part of the original name, the Ontario Geographic Names Board endorsed the locally preferred form in 1978.” In other cases where irregular names were approved, the document mentions the need for “field work” to document the irregularity.

Certainly the attempted resurrection of the Bishops Mills apostrophe from that hastily scrawled ancient invoice is not “well established,” dating only from some time in the late 1990s, and the “current usage” for many residents of the hamlet is to roll their eyes whenever the matter of the apostrophe is mentioned. And as far as “field work” goes, my natural history database mentions “Bishops Mills” 35,611 times and I find “Bishop’s Mills” only twice, in the labels of birds mis-transcribed by staff at the National Museum of Natural Sciences.

It’s refreshing to be able to support municipal staff in this, and hope that this gratuitous genitive irregularity will be gone from North Grenville’s place names in the next generation of signs and documents.

Fred Schueler,
Bishops Mills

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