or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, October 18, 2005


So I was reading an article in the online New Yorker yesterday (this one, if you must know) and a word grabbed my eye. No, it wasn't wrong; this is the New Yorker we're talking about. It just grabbed my eye, that's all.

The word was "supplied", and I immediately thought of the word "supply" and simultaneously of the word "supple", because that is the way my brain works. Could there be any relationship between them, and if there was, what was it? They didn't seem related in any way, but stranger things have happened in English.

They aren't, in fact, related, though they do share the Latin prefix "sub-", "under". "Supple", unsurprisingly, comes to us directly from French, which uses "souple" to express the same idea. The French, in turn, got it from Latin "supplex", "one who supplicates", and to supplicate is to humbly beseech while bowing before; the knees are bent under the body, and this is literally what "supple" means: "sub-" plus "-plex", "under-folded". The root "-plex" has a host of offshoots in English: the folded strands of a "plait", the bendable "Plexiglass", the convolutions of "complexity" and "perplexity", and, through the related Latin "plicare", "pliable", "complicate", the multiple layers known as "plies", and "implicate" ("to fold within").

"Supply", on the other hand, comes from "sub-" plus "plere", "to fill". "Plere" also makes it presence known in a galaxy of words such as "plenty", "replenish", the "implement" we use to fulfill some physical goal, "compliance" and "compliment" which are used to fulfill duties or social goals, and the "completion" of those goals.

Of course, "supply" is also the adverbial form of "supple", but that's just an accident of spelling (although the less aesthetically pleasing "supplely" would also do).


Also in The New Yorker--here--was the following pair of sentences:

“The West Wing” ’s midlife crisis may also have provided an early lesson for ABC’s show. Two years ago, “The West Wing” ’s prodigious creator, Aaron Sorkin, who wrote virtually every episode and strained the show’s budget—and NBC’s patience—with delays, left under a cloud.

Now we know that one entry in the New Yorker's stylebook reads, "When a phrase in quotation marks is possessive, leave a space between the closing quotation marks and the apostrophe," or some such. It's clear that they do it to leave absolutely no doubt that the apostrophe is there, but it looks strange and, frankly, wrong. (Mind you, my first instinct is to rewrite the sentence, but that isn't really an option in this case: the show's name really needs to be in the possessive. If the show's name had an apostrophe-ess at the end, though, we'd have to rewrite it; ""Eat At Joe's"'s" is a nightmare thicket of punctuation.) It's too bad their stylebook doesn't allow them to put the names of television shows in italics rather than quotes, which would solve the problem nicely.

It isn't wrong, I suppose; it's a matter of house style. But I don't like it. There aren't any other cases in English in which the possessive apostrophe-ess is bodily separated from the word it modifies, and I don't see why we should make an exception for close-quotes. Me, I just jam the apostrophe up against those quotation marks. If people can't trust me, if they have to get close and count the squiggles to make sure I haven't left something out, so be it.


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