Who needs it or uses it, and will the semicolon wither from neglect; dwindling into obsolescence like the appendix, the pager or the video rental store?
Will its cousin the en-dash replace it – so much easier to use and Microsoft Word never underlines this little mark with green?
Or will it fall victim to a bullet-point world, in which we no longer need to read books or lengthy dissertations; just the executive summary, the cheat sheet, the crib notes, the briefing paper; with our globalised goldfish-attention-span, in which we don’t need the distraction of detail, argument or historical context?
What exactly is the semicolon? According to G V Carey, writing in 1958, it’s ‘heavier than a comma but less heavy than a full-stop, and it comes in handy for separating two sentences which could stand independently with a full-stop between them, but which are somewhat closely connected in sense.’ The great H W Fowler and his heir Robert Burchfield provide a comprehensive explanation that is rather more detailed that Mr Carey’s; involving a consideration of finite verbs, subordinate clauses and coordinating conjunctions. Hardly worthy even to mention their names, I hereby dare to group this punctuation mark’s uses into a mere five categories. Pardon, gentles all, if this presumption causes you to retch and moan.
- The semicolon separates statements that can stand alone as separate sentences. For example: ‘The arrogant, erratic and impulsive cruise captain navigated too close to shore; thereby jeopardising his passengers, crew and cargo.’
- The semicolon separates two statements that are related to each other. For example: ‘The captain claimed he fell into a life boat; and somehow he could not fall out of it again, despite repeated requests by rescue authorities.’
- The semicolon can be used instead of a comma to separate items in long lists. For example: ‘The arrogant, erratic and impulsive cruise captain blundered; distracted by a young blonde, who had no business being on the bridge; somewhat the worse for champagne, his judgement already impaired; and trying to show off to a mistress, while claiming to be doing a favour for one of his crew members, a man who had relatives on the island.’
- The semicolon can join two independent sentences connected by the following words: nevertheless, however, on the other hand, subsequently, for example, in conclusion, moreover, accordingly, then, also, furthermore. For example: ‘The cruise captain miscalculated in his navigation; however, he had already shown his lack of judgement in several other ways, and would again throughout the rescue.’
- The semicolon is used before a clause that begins with the following words: nevertheless, however, on the other hand, subsequently, that is, for example, in conclusion, moreover, accordingly, then, also, furthermore. For example: ‘The cruise captain erred; that is, he would have climbed out of the lifeboat he had fallen into if he wasn’t already on land, which he wasn’t.’
Punctuation guru Lynne Truss (2003) says that punctuation ‘directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play.’ Beautifully put. I will go further, risking a venture into the realm of truism; language is music and music is language. Perhaps in the age of dot-point summary and headline-only news we have lost our patience with the languid sentence. The leisured, meandering sentence paths of Henry James, Henry Handel Richardson or Anthony Trollope—all exemplars of the semicolon—hardly fit with the rat-a-tat-tat pace of a contemporary brick-thick page-turner; but does this mean the semi is headed for the bone-house where we have buried ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ with Bakelite and Beta; or can we rescue it simply by using it? I remain optimistic. I’ll keep on keeping on with the little beggar; dropping it into documents, even text messages, just for the fun of seeing it frolic and thrive.
To finish, here’s an excerpt from A Buyer’s Market (1952) by Anthony Powell, a true artist of punctuation. His extended sentence employs those little marks on the page to keep complex construction clear and effective. ‘It would, indeed, be hard to over-estimate the extent to which persons of similar tastes can often, in fact almost always, observe these responses in others: women: money: power: whatever it is they seek; while this awareness remains a mystery to those in whom such tendencies are less highly, or not at all, developed.’
Few people nowadays refer to Internet search engines; instead, most of us Google.
This intentionally misspelt trade name (a ‘googol’ being the large number of 10 to the power of 100) has become a verb as well as a noun. And googling follows a long tradition of trademark names that have become synonyms and even replaced generic names. People talk of Hoovering when they mean vacuum-cleaning. Many people use a biro while remaining ignorant of the Hungarian journalist named Lászlsó Biró who invented the ballpoint pen in 1931 (though his creation was known as the ‘Birome’ when he patented it). Biró left an eponymous—if unofficial—legacy to all subsequent brands of ballpoint pen. Coke is only one brand of cola, even if it is the best known. Headwear has featured in this process too, from the Stetson (a brand of cowboy or frontier trooper hat made by the John B. Stetson Co.) to the Fedora (from an 1882 play called Fédora, in which Sarah Bernhardt wore a felt brimmed hat pinched at the crown). Sticky tape is often referred to as Scotch Tape, even though there are many equivalent brands; likewise Kleenex, Clearasil and Glad Wrap.
We seldom hear the phrase ‘sticking plaster’ any more, but that’s what a Band-Aid is. We drink champagne grown in many places long removed from the Champagne-Ardennes region of France, even if it’s sold as sparkling wine. We keep our drinks in an Esky, even though that’s a brand name like Hoover or Kleenex. We cut materials with a Stanley Knife, even though that name belongs to only one brand on the market. We ‘photoshop,’ even though that’s the name of one software package and there are many others available. We throw a Frisbee, even though that’s a brand name too. We use Vaseline as if it’s a common noun. We talk of iPods and iPads as if there is only one kind of portable media player or tablet computer. There are other hot tub manufacturers apart from Jacuzzi and many compact sports utility vehicle makers other than Jeep. Denim jeans are not all Levi’s jeans, nor is the Post-It Note anything other than a brand of sticky notepaper. Even Ping Pong is a trade name, registered by Parker Brothers for their brand of table tennis.
Beach wear ought to be generic but the word Speedos (and their unfortunate association with Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott) is a brand, not a common noun. So is Tarmac a trade name for a form of asphalt. Tupperware is only a brand of plastic storage container. Xerox is neither a verb nor a common noun (though it’s going the way of Google). Kitty Litter is a brand. So are the brands Liquid Paper and Tippex. Super Glue and Velcro, though very useful, are brands too.
But here’s where the evolutionary nature of language steps in. Just as ‘to Google’ and ‘to Xerox’ are knocking on the door of formal English, commercial propriety only has a certain reach. Time erodes the distinction between brand and common noun. In fifty years, many of the above will have lost all trace of proprietary connection. It has happened to the following words, each of which used to be a trademark name before becoming generic items:
Aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid, once a trademark name from Bayer & Co), heroin (originally a brand of diamorphine, also from Bayer & Co), linoleum (solidified linseed oil mixed with cork dust and sawdust), laundromat (a Westinghouse brand of coin laundry), petrol (refined petroleum spirit, once a trademark name of British firm Carless, Capel and Leonard, allegedly a contraction of ‘St. Peter’s Oil’), thermos (vacuum flask or insultating storage vessel), yo-yo (trademarked name of an ancient form of spinning toy), dry ice (solidified carbon dioxide, from the Dry Ice Corporation of America), cellophane (thin transparent cellulose wrap, once trademarked by Dupont), escalator (a moving staircase formerly trademarked by Otis) and zipper (a clasp locker formerly the trademark of BF Goodrich).
So next time some pedant ticks you off for using Google, Hoover or Xerox as a verb, tell him or her to take two acetylsalicylic acid tablets and don’t call you in the morning.
The ‘furphy’ is a peculiarly Australian expression. For those who don’t know, the word means a baseless rumour. There are two claimants to the origin of this term. The author Joseph Furphy (1843-1912), who wrote under the nom de plume of Tom Collins, was an Australian of Irish parentage. His best known novel is the 1903 classic Such is Life. It is has been suggested that a ‘furphy’ owes its origin to this colourful individual. A fanciful idea—but there is a stronger claimant. During the First World War, the Broadmeadows army base north of Melbourne was the main training ground for new recruits. Water trucks bearing the surname of the cartage company, Furphy, made regular deliveries to the barracks. Many rumours were discussed, imported and exported by the drivers. In due course a ‘furphy’ became known throughout the Australian army as slang for a baseless rumour.
This is a perfect example of an eponym.
During the so-called ‘land war’ of Ireland in the 1870s, Captain Charles Boycott was a land agent in County Mayo for an absent landlord, the Anglo-Irish peer Lord Erne. Following a poor harvest in 1880, Lord Erne offered his tenants a ten percent reduction in their rent. The tenants demanded twenty-five percent. When their landlord refused the tenants’ counter-offer, Captain Boycott tried to evict them. A proposal had earlier been put forward by land reformer and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Charles Stewart Parnell, recommending that prospective tenants should shun any offer of taking a vacant farm if the tenant had been evicted. Boycott learned to his cost that such shunning meant no rent at all. Tenancies remained vacant. Even worse, workers refused to work in the fields and local traders shunned him. Boycott could not find anyone to work on the crops. He had been ‘boycotted’.
How many other people have entered the language as nouns and verbs? Who else is an eponymous language donor?
From ancient times, we’ve had no shortage. Adam gave us his apple for anatomy. Achilles left us with his heel and his tendon. Julius Caesar gave us Caesarean sections, Czars and Kaisers. Atlas no longer holds up the sky; instead he provides us with maps of the world. Mentor has left Odysseus behind and now appears in the shape of wise elders. Stentor’s stage fame has long faded but the legacy of his mighty voice remains in adjectival form. Romulus gave us Rome and romance. King Mausolus of Persia gave us the mausoleum.
During the early formative centuries of English, we benefited from many surnames turned into phenomena, behaviour or things. Saints gave us the meteorological phenomenon known as St Elmo’s Fire, as well as the neurological disorder St Vitus’ Dance. Machiavelli outlived his Medici patrons in adjectival form to describe scheming unprincipled power-broking. The Marquis de Sade gave us sadism, while the lesser known Austrian writer Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch gave us masochism. Prior to the Bastille falling, the French finance minister Étienne de Silhouette had a reputation for austere economic measures. His name became associated with cheap goods, such as profiles cut from black card that cost less than proper portraits. So we have the silhouette. A generation later, during the revolutionary period, French physician Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin found his name associated with a means of death designed and built by a German engineer. Over in the American colonies, a Virginia Quaker called Charles Lynch advocated a law that would exonerate perpetrators summarily executing loyalist supporters of the British. The term ‘Lynch law’ became associated with extrajudicial justice. ‘Lynching’ was later practised almost exclusively on African-Americans, though this was never Lynch’s intention. Not nice. Not at all nice. But around this time, one Englishman was greatly in favour of nice. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825) admired the works of Shakespeare, only he considered them unsuitable for the delicate sensibilities of women and children. He published an expurgated edition of Shakespeare’s works known as The Family Shakespeare, which excluded all the racier and more bloodthirsty elements: in other words, the best bits. We now use ‘bowdlerise’ to indicate censorship of books, film and TV. Not so nice.
Science and technology have provided a fertile breeding ground for eponyms. These names are mainly remembered as devices, measures or phenomena: James Watt, Harald Bluetooth, Rudolf Diesel, Louis Braille, Jacques Daguerre, Thomas Derrick, Gabriel Fahrenheit, Heinrich Hertz, Anders Celsius, Christian Doppler, James Joule, Lord Kelvin, Samuel Morse, Ernst Mach, Charles Richter, Alessandro Volta. War and terror also feature in this list, including the ignoble surnames of Mikhail Kalashnikov, Vyscheslav Molotov and Henry Shrapnel. Peacetime inventors have become name donors too; including George Ferris (the Ferris wheel), Wilbert Gore (Gore-Tex, the porous waterproof fabric), Laurens Hammond (the Hammond organ), Henry Gantt (the Gantt chart), Candido Jacuzzi (the Jacuzzi), Lazslo Biro (the ball-point pen), Jean Nicot (nicotine), and John Macadam (famous for macadamised roads as well as the macadamia nut). And not a few famous folk have given their names to countries, cities and states: (Maurice of Nassau) Mauritius, (James Monroe) Monrovia, (William Penn) Pennsylvania, (William Pitt) Pittsburgh, (Simon Bolivar) Bolivia, (Cecil Rhodes) Rhodesia; and near-eponyms of several monarchs: (Mary I) Maryland, (Charles I) North and South Carolina, (Phillip II) Philippines.
A more entertaining eponym is ‘sideburns,’ which is a corruption of the original term ‘burnsides,’ named after Ambrose Burnside, a general of the Union Army in the American Civil War. Burnside had a distinctive style of facial hair, linking his thick side whiskers with his moustache but leaving the chin hairless. Another strange corruption of the eponymous original is ‘chauvinism’. The word originally meant patriotic, and bellicose to a jingoistic degree. It derived from Nicolas Chauvin, a heroic French soldier of the Napoleonic wars who performed many acts of bravado. Some claim that he never existed but—like Robin Hood and King Arthur—he came to embody a set of valiant qualities. Later the word shifted in meaning, becoming synonymous with partisanship and bias, often of a nationalistic nature. More recently it has come to be associated with sexism, from the longer term ‘male chauvinism’. Quite a journey for the gallant Monsieur Chauvin.
My favourite eponym is a simple one: a minor character from a film. And this word has undergone surprisingly little change in fifty years. A news photographer in Federico Fellini’s 1960 classic La Dolce Vita was named Paparazzo. In an interview with Time magazine Fellini claimed that he took this name from an Italian dialect word for an annoying noise: the mosquito. The insect and the journalist variety often arrive en masse. In a hundred years, when Fellini’s work might well be forgotten except by film historians, we could still be using the word in its original eponymous—and perhaps onomatopoeic—sense.