More on apostrophes in names

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Michael Quinion's latest World Wide Words newsletter (#625, 2/7/09) has an informative follow-up on the Birmingham apostrophe flap (discussed on Language Log here), which I'm reproducing below.

ABANDONED APOSTROPHES  My little item last time about the decision of the Birmingham City Council in the UK to ban the apostrophe from street and neighbourhood signs mentioned that the US experience had been taken as a precedent. A message came from Roger Payne who, as the emeritus Executive Secretary of the US Board on Geographic Names, knows whereof he speaks. The Board has discouraged the use of apostrophes since its formation in 1890 (though five exceptions have been allowed, the most recent being Clark's Mountain in Oregon in 2002), but its remit is in practice limited to natural features, so perhaps ought not to be claimed in support. In 2000, he gave the reasons for losing the possessive apostrophe in the Journal of the American Name Society: "Words when forming geographic names have lost their connotative aspects; the name is merely a label, and therefore ownership or association is no longer relevant." 

Those who oppose losing the apostrophe may argue that the final "s" should then go, too, since you need both to mark possessives. This is happening in medical practice, which – as two examples – often refers to Down syndrome and Alzheimer disease, since they're named after the medical men who identified the conditions but who didn't suffer from them (I assume that Lou Gehrig's disease will keep its apostrophe, as it's named after a famous man who contracted it.)

Terry Davidson noted that Australia has similar rules to those in the US and pointed me to Section 4.12 of the Guidelines for the Consistent Use of Place Names, a publication of the Committee for Geographical Names in Australia, which says in full: "In all cases of place names containing an element that has historically been written with a final -'s or -s', the apostrophe is to be deleted, e.g. Howes Valley, Rushcutters Bay, Ladys Pass. This is to facilitate the consistent matching and retrieval of placenames in database systems such as those used by the emergency services." 

I've updated my piece about apostrophes, which you can read here.

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