This morning I grabbed House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and walked to my favorite breakfast shop. The place has a nice outdoor sitting area and a water view, so it’s a pleasant setting for reading and enjoying a cup of coffee.
Little did I know I was on a collision course with an apostrophe issue.
When it comes to punctuation errors, few cause as much trouble as the apostrophe. You can hardly blame people for getting irritated with it. Who do you think you are anyway, you preposterous, jumped-up comma?
Of course, it’s not the apostrophe’s fault that people confuse “its” and “it’s” or get flummoxed with its use when writing plural and possessive words. Misuse of the apostrophe is so prevalent, however, that it’s damn near epidemic.
Today’s apostrophe in question showed up on a menu item. Menus, we all know, are a popular spawning ground for all manner of spelling and punctuation errors. We might wish they weren’t, but, hey, I’m awfully forgiving if the food and service are otherwise excellent.
The shop uses playful names for their food items, and the sandwich that caught my eye (a poached egg, blue cheese, and grape jelly on an English muffin) is called “Finnegan’s Awake.”
Ah, I thought, an allusion to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (confession: I’ve read Dubliners and Ullyses, but never Joyce’s most challenging work). The missing apostrophe in the book’s title changes the meaning from a wake for a man named Finnegan to the notion that many Finnegans should wake (or awake, as the sandwich would have it).
Another misused apostrophe, I thought, all self-congratulatory smugness.
Joyce was playing with the title of an Irish, 1850s ballad, “Finnegan’s Wake,” which has more recently been recorded by such bands as The Dubliners and Dropkick Murphys. The song tells the story of Tim Finnegan, a hard-drinking man who falls from a ladder and bonks his noggin. Thought dead, Finnegan is prepared for burial, but at his wake rambunctious mourners spill whiskey (the “water of life”) on Finnegan, reviving him.
Joyce’s title therefore suggests the rebirth of those fallen.
The proprietors of the restaurant could very well have been referring to the song and not the book. Or they may not have given it that much thought. In any case, I should probably have just moved quickly past it and enjoyed my coffee, sandwich, and book.
But it’s never that easy for editors, is it?