The apostrophe must die

I’m mildly amused but mostly slightly irritated by those seeking to attack the decision by Waterstones not to use the apostrophe in their name any more. I’m annoyed mostly because of their reasoning – it’s really not that inconvenient, right?


My surname is O’Connell. In general, I don’t use the apostrophe when I enter my name on computer systems. It does not appear on my bank cards for example, because I asked them to take it off when I changed my name. It’s not on my blood donor card, because I did not put it on the forms when I signed up.

But some people will “helpfully” reinsert it if I leave it off. This leads to problems. Not just the Little Bobby Tables problem, but that’s bad enough when systems won’t let you enter it but still require an exact match on your name. More than once I’ve started at a company to find my email is “Zoe.O’” which isn’t a valid address.

And you can forget personalised domains, because someone is bound to try zoeo’ which also won’t work.

Fix the computers? I wish it was that easy but humans can’t handle it either. I’ve been stuck at the front gates of data centres or on the phone to some call centre more than once because they are typing “O-Connell”, “O,Connell” or even just Connell on the computer to search for me.

I’ve ranted about this before, back in 2009:

I’ve decided that I’m going to change my name to संसृति कुमारी. This is, as far as I can figure out, the closest you can get to “Life Maiden” (Zoe Imogen) in सम्भाषनसंस्कृत (Sanskrit). I shall write to everyone – banks etc. – and inform them of my name change. Of course, they’ll all write back and tell me that they’re very sorry, but their computer systems can’t handle सम्भाषनसंस्कृत letters.

To which there’s a simple reply – You can’t handle the stupid apostrophie in my surname as it is without breaking things, why would having it in Sanskrit make any difference?

So, until someone can fix the whole Internet and teach all humans everywhere to enter data properly, I’ll stick without it.

(As an aside, there is likely not even supposed to be an apostrophe in the name anyway. I’ve seen various explanations but it’s most likely simply an anglicisation that happened during the first censuses of Ireland to mean “of the Connell clan”, “son/daughter of Conall” etc.)


  1. I think Ó Connell means “grandson of Connell”, and the accent has fallen off to become O’. In which case you probably should be Ní Connell – try that as a search term!

    The Waterstones apostrophe is a nasty 18th century innovation anyway. As the e in old genitive forms like “foxes tail” was increasingly dropped to give “fox’s tail”, forms like “dogs tail” were illogically conformed to “dog’s tail” even though there is no letter omitted.

    Now to wrestle with the Captcha. I hate them! What sort of word is rtmedy anyway?

  2. Since the apostrophe in Waterstones signifies possession and since this chain of bookstores was founded by one Tim Waterstone the presence of the apostrophe in the shop name seems entirely appropriate – the chain was – at one time – Tim Waterstone’s chain.

  3. What irks me most is having a credit card that HAS the apostrophe in my name but, when asked to enter my name on the credit card company’s own ID verification system, it won’t accept it! I keep getting an error message demanding that I enter my name “eaxctly as it appears on the card” – which is exactly what I am doing you cretins!!

    Paul O’Carroll (or POCARROLL if you’re sitting at Barclaycard and reading this).

    1. X.400 doesn’t permit it, and many platforms (including Microsoft Exchange) were originally built on X.400. No way to guarantee every customer or supplier you deal with is RFC2822 rather than X.400.

      1. X.400 does permit the apostrophe – take a look in ITU-T Rec. F.400/X.400 |ISO/IEC 10021-1 Message handling system and service overview and ITU-T Rec. X.402 |ISO/IEC 10021-2 Message Handling Systems (MHS): Overall architecture for details. Not the most gripping read, but the name element of e-mail addresses is most certainly not restricted in terms of disallowing apostrophes or many other characters.

  4. Are you saying that there are noticeable numbers of mail systems so spectacularly broken that they can’t receive and reply to valid and only-mildly-unusual SMTP messages!?

    1. When it comes to email addresses, yes. Microsoft Exchange didn’t fix it until Exchange 2007, which dropped X.400 support, and there is still a sizeable enough install base of Exchange 2003 without the workarounds enabled to be a problem. (Exchange 2003 isn’t end of life until next year)

      1. Hmm, a quick Google suggests that this is not correct, and that even very old versions of Exchange work fine with apostrophes. Although apparently some anti-spam / firewall products get this wrong. Ah well, I was just curious 😉

  5. My name is O’Neill and I am certain the company that created the software are English and did this deliberately because they hate Irish people. I refuse to give up my heritage because of some infernal machine. Computers were made to serve humans not the other way around, so the racist company that created the software must fix the problem.
    Many IT people can fix the problem, but simply can’t be bothered. I’ve managed to get some people to fix their data bases and I still working on others. How dare they punish us for being Irish! The English tried to take away our Os and apostrophes in the past. Now they are trying again, but they won’t suceed. I’ll keep fighting this until it is fixed in every computer system everywhere.

  6. There are also Italian people that have apostrophes in their names, such as: D’Agostino and D’Angelo.
    I once knew a woman with an apostrophe in her first name! Jèannè D’arc (Joan of Arc).
    Some data bases also don’t like hypenated names or names with prefixes of any kind.
    French names such as Le Roy and de Burgh aren’t liked by computers either.
    I also know a Dutch lady that has problems with her surname in data bases because it is van der Pol and the stupid computer assumes that Pol is her surname and the prefix “van der” are 2 middle names.
    Then if you are Polish the computer says your name is too long even though it is all one word.
    If I write my surname the correct Gaelic way: Ã’ Nèill, then it doesn’t acknowledge the “Ã’” as being part of my surname. The software companies have a lot to answer for, as they are selling faulty software to people. I was raised t spell people’s names correctly and to not do so is highly insulting to the person concerned. The software companies need to issue upgrades free of charge to all their customers at once to iron out these bugs and they need to issue an apology via the media to all of us whom they have offended for misspelling our names.

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