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Orthography

April 6, 2001

If I were to mention the word ‘orthography,’ you would probably think, ‘the study of perpendicular lines.’ But you would be wrong.

In last week’s column, I noticed that the editors and I had an orthographical difference of opinion. Orthography is proper spelling, or the study of it. This, along with typography and punctuation, make up a curiously refined aspect of human communication.

We have a highly developed ability to make fine distinctions, and we make use of it in the endless varieties of symbols we create. We can recognize letters in the most abstract typefaces, and no robot or computer comes close to our ability. Just compare your own careful printing with the script on your shopping list.

But as for the orthographical controversy: last week I wrote “indexes,” and the editors wrote “indices.” Both are correct. I chose “indexes” purposely, but for a spurious reason.

I imagined that “refractive indices” would sound as if I meant different kinds of refractive indexes rather than different measurements of the same index. Frankly, I should have reworded the sentence and avoided the problem altogether. Sometimes, more words are better.

Styles change. I noticed in a William James book recently the curious combination “;–” or semi-colon/dash. This punctuation was first pointed out to me years ago by Belle Tomko. She noticed them in our old Willa Cather books, which were printed just after the turn of the century (the turn from 19th to 20th), around the same time as James’ book.

She wondered exactly what it meant. I still wonder. We both feared we were missing a subtle distinction. Seeing it again got me thinking about other styles of punctuation and spelling that I find appealing.

On St. Patrick’s Day, no less, I was speaking with a bloke about his Irish moniker, and he mentioned that the family name used to be O’Dorney. I love those names, along with the McNames, which have been tainted slightly by McDonald’s but still retain their exotic appeal.

I like when the Mc is written as Mc. When I was a wee lad, I loved how my stepfather would write his first and middle names, abbreviated, as Wm Chas. [superscript c and m]

I like ellipses … and dashes –, including the dash one had to make on old typewriters by combining two hyphens –. Modern word processing, like modern weapons, permit undisciplined application of what was once a careful art. Still, I enjoy my computer’s choice of (parentheses) and [{brackets}] and other marks.

Author Thomas Pynchon has long had a fetish about ampersands “&”. You can imagine such a symbol would invite a fabulous variety of artistic flourish. The story has it that Pynchon was meticulous about the choice and reproduction of the ampersand used on the cover of his latest novel, “Mason & Dixon.”

That novel is full of orthographical fun, written as it is in a quasi-eighteenth-century style with lots of capitals and apostrophes. Consider the first sentence of the novel: “Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr’d the Sides of Outbuildings …”

The narrator is a Reverend, spelt “Revd.” [superscript d]

A relative of the semi-colon/dash is used throughout the book: the comma/dash,– as well as other dash combinations. I still don’t know what to make of it, but I like it.

The O’Dorney bloke and I had started off discussing the qualities of pens and penmanship, which is a related topic, but more on that another time.

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