The Loss of the Apostrophe in “Valentine’s Day”: One More Victory for the Forces of Secularization
On my way to Mass this Sunday, my eyes’ attention was seized by one of those unbearably bright digital billboard signs that change colors and messages every 5 seconds, this one now advertising candy and flowers at a local grocery store under the following headline:
VALENTINES DAY IS COMING!
I have long since been de-sensitized to the anarchy now prevailing at the ends of printed English words, where once there could be found clear distinctions between plural nouns, singular possessives, and plural possessives. I confess that wishes of “Happy New Years!” make me a little depressed, but only because they heighten my anxieties about how quickly time is passing. It has been a while since I annoyed my friends the Smiths, who have a hand-painted wooden sign hanging by their front door that proclaims “WELCOME TO THE SMITH’S,” with impertinent questions about which one of them exactly owns the house and is arrogant enough to call himself “the Smith”.
I have become completely accustomed to coexisting with a sizeable segment of the population for whom the addition of a final –s to common and proper nouns alike is not so much a semantic bearer of precise meaning as it is a kind of hissing sound. It makes no difference to me whether my kids’ school is observing “Grandparent’s Day” or “Grandparents’ Day”, because the grandparents all live out of state and couldn’t be there in any number.
But I realized on Sunday that there is far more at stake in punctuating Valentine’s Day correctly. Forgetting the possessive apostrophe is a small error, the kind of mistake that the late Richard Mitchell used to say is like forgetting to tighten one lousy little bolt on the wing of an airplane.
The Christian roots of the now-thoroughly commercialized and erotico-sentimentalized American Valentine’s Day have long since fallen into obscurity, a situation that was not aided by the removal of the commemoration of St. Valentine, an ancient Roman priest and martyr, from the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar in recent decades, an emendation that cancelled a traditional observance of no slight antiquity. February 14 is now the mainstream Church’s obligatory feast of Ss. Cyril and Methodius, co-patrons of Europe, the Greek missionaries to the Slavs and inventors of an alphabet for the same.
(Those Catholics with access to worship in the Extraordinary Form according to the Missal of 1962 have the liturgical observance of St. Valentine’s Day preserved for them on Tuesday, a fact which ought especially to delight 7-year-old girls throughout traditionalist Catholic circles. Cyril and Methodius, worthy fellows indeed, are themselves not slighted in the old calendar, commemorated on July 7.)
The romantic associations of the holiday, which really began to heat up in 19th century England, long before the American greeting card industry made it into big business, seem to go back at least as far as late medieval poetry about the early-spring mating of birds, which popular lore held to coincide with the feast-day of St. Valentine. One can find such a reference in Chaucer, and a later allusion in the mouth of the ill-fated Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Now for Catholic Christians, Valentine ought to be a proper name: a unique Saint of the Church whose red martyr’s blood watered the soil out of which our faith has sprung; or, in a de-sacralized but still noble chivalric vein, a byword for the self-giving, self-sacrificing lover, willing to lay down his life for his lady as St. Valentine did for his Lady Ecclesia. If St. Valentine is in our minds, then we can hardly forget that the 14th is HIS day, in honor of his witness: it is Valentine’s Day, and the possessive apostrophe pays him just tribute. To omit it is an offense against piety, if perhaps an unintentional one.
But in the commercialized pagan culture that expresses billboard messages like VALENTINES DAY IS COMING, a valentine is just a common noun, an ordinary thing that admits of endless pluralization: from the millions upon millions of cheap paper greeting cards that will be sold to the parents of little kids in elementary school, to the temporary erotic partners with whom singles happen to be in congress at mid-February, valentines are a dime a dozen, or $5.99 for the mega-pac at Target. For American mass culture, it is naturally Valentines Day, the day of many valentines. In the absence of any clear association with the memory of Valentine himself, the correct apostrophe either feels wrong to those who know the conventions of grammar, or to those who don’t, it’s just another way to pluralize a word, as in the sign at the gas station’s cash register that reads MACHINE IS TEMPERARILY DOWN, WE ARE UNABLE TO EXCEPT CREDIT CARD’S.
To paraphrase George Orwell, author of the absolutely indispensible essay “Politics and the English Language”: if our thoughts are careless and sloppy, they will express themselves in correspondingly careless and sloppy language; but if our language itself is corrupted and imprecise, it has a prophylactic effect, preventing clear and correct thought from ever being conceived. The mind that doesn’t know the difference between valentines and Valentine’s will be in no position to even suspect that they are actually a he, and the day originally his.
So this year, why not give that special someone a gift s/he’s never had before—an apostrophe, and with it, an explanation of the difference between the subjective plural and the possessive singular, and why the distinction matters on Saint Valentine’s Day?
As a postscript, I am reminded of the following prose-poem attributed to the late D. Powlett-Jones, an important fictional figure in the underground resistance movement against ungrammatical fascism:
When they came for the apostrophe in Presidents’ Day, I didn’t say anything, because I wasn’t a president.
When they came for the distinction between “its” and “it’s,” I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t too sure myself.
When they took the commas from the magazine cover story about “Rachel Ray—on Cooking Her Family and Her Dog,” I laughed half a cup of coffee through my nose, but failed otherwise to protest.
But when I objected to the misprint that confused the meanings of ‘homoousion’ and ‘homoiousion,’ they said it was all Greek to them;
And when I insisted there was an eternity of difference between “He’ll be my comfort and my joy” and “Hell be my comfort and my joy,” there wasn’t a soul left that gave a damn.