Rantings of a sub-editor

March 12, 2011

The mother of apostrophe dilemmas

Filed under: Mother's Day,punctuation — substuff @ 4:58 pm

Around this time every year, someone always raises the question of Mother’s Day. Of three things you can be sure:

  1. It won’t be my brother
  2. Much tutting and sighing will be done over apostrophes, singular mothers, plural mothers and generic mothers 
  3. By this time next year, we’ll all have forgotten again

This year is different. Yes! This year I will excite you with tidbits that may even be true, our memories will be stimulated and next year we shall be able to nod sagely and answer without hesitation when some other fool raises the question.

Mother’s Day was founded in America by Anna Jarvis. She started campaigning for it in 1905, following the death of her mother, and seven years later trademarked both “Mother’s Day” and the phrase “second Sunday in May”. According to this rather lovely article on Canada.com:

She was specific about the location of the apostrophe; it was to be a singular possessive, for each family to honour their mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.

Incidentally, Jarvis went on to campaign against the commercialisation of Mother’s Day. But before you consider making that argument when you forget your flowers on 3rd April (note my handy warning), beware – the alternative is to wear a carnation and write a heartfelt letter. Suddenly M&S doesn’t sound so bad, huh?

However, we Brits, because we are super, actually had our own celebration before the Americans got in on the act (the sixteenth century, according to that bastion of accuracy, Wikipedia). It was always the fourth Sunday in Lent and girls in domestic service were given the day off to visit their “mother church” (nearest chunkily sized church or cathedral, so far as I can work out).

Somewhere along the way it became a day to visit mothers, and lo a need for cake came to pass, along with a need to decorate it with 11 disciples. Now I’m not sure whether one baked it for one’s mother or with one’s mother, but either way, a simnel cake was magicked into the world. And just this once I’m going to grace you with a recipe to enjoy with your gratuitous word facts [slobber]. Don’t get used to it. However, because of the rules of Lent, until Easter the only permitted interaction with the cake was to look at it. Yum.

Mothering Sunday lost popularity in the industrial revolution, but when we met those golden and strapping Americans and Canadians during the second world war, we decided we liked it again. We kept our traditional date, though, and still celebrate on the fourth Sunday of Lent, which this year puts us one week ahead of the US.

The short version, though, is Mother’s day. Apostrophe ess. “Mothering Sunday” now, unfortunately, just sounds too quaint.

I want cake.


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