Apostrophe: Part 2


apostrophe: 1) A rhetorical device in which the speaker breaks off from discourse in order to address a person or thing, absent or present; 2) The sign ’, used to indicate omitted letters, or the possessive case

Greengrocer's apostrophe in fairground
Click to enlarge

In my previous post about apostrophes, I wrote about the use of the punctuation mark, and mentioned briefly that the name comes from Greek apostrophe, compounded of the prefix apo-, “away” and strophe “a turning”. I’ve written before about the prefix apo-, and its various applications, when I dealt with the words perihelion and aphelion. So this post will deal with the family of words descended from Greek strophe.

Last time, I gave a Shakespearean example of the rhetorical kind of apostrophe (the first definition at the head of this post). Here’s another, more modern example:

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again

That’s Paul Simon, “turning away” to address a literal or figurative darkness at the start of his song “The Sound Of Silence” (1964). If you indulge in apostrophe of this sort, then you apostrophize. But if you apostrophate, you cut short your discourse—a more literal interpretation of “turning away”.

Another rhetorical device is epistrophe, “turning upon”, in which a word or phrase is repeated, for emphasis, at the end of successive clauses or sentences. Abraham Lincoln used it to good effect in his Gettysburg Address when he spoke of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”.

And then there anastrophe, “turning back”, another rhetorical device, in which normal word order is reversed so as to place emphasis where it needs to be—”life eternal”, “body beautiful” and Longfellow’s “forest primeval” all use anastrophe to put the emphasis on the adjective, rather than the noun.

The word catastrophe, “turning over”, was originally used to mean a reversal of fortune, for good or bad, at the conclusion of a drama. Only later did it come to have its current extreme, negative connotations. J.R.R. Tolkien felt that we really needed a specific word for a reversal of fortune that produced a good outcome, and so added the Greek prefix eu-, “good”, coining the handy word eucatastrophe.

In Ancient Greek theatre, scene-setting was done by a chorus, who would sing poetic odes to introduce the characters and their situation. This was traditionally done in matched sections, the strophe and antistrophe—the first sung as the chorus moved across the stage from right to left, and the second (matching the poetic structure of the first but delivering some alternative aspect of the plot) as the chorus moved from left to right. So the strophe (“turn”) and antistrophe (“turn against”) were literal movements as well as figurative opposites. Nowadays, strophe applies to a metrical group of lines of verse, a usage almost indistinguishable from stanza. But antistrophe has taken on new meanings—as a synonym for epistrophe; and to designate the deeply satisfying practice, in debate, of turning one opponents’ own words against them. An example of such debating judo is called an antistrophon.

Greek strophe also gives us many scientific words, of which the following is just a sampler. Diastrophism (“turning across”) is the geological process of folding and faulting that produces much of our landscape. In biology, a snail-shell that curls in the reverse direction to the normal for its species is said to be heterostrophic (“different turning”). Exstrophy (“out turning”) is the turning inside-out of an organ during embryological development (never a good thing). Geostrophic (“earth turning”) winds or ocean currents are movements of air or water under the influence of the Earth’s rotation (I wrote about this phenomenon in my post about the Coriolis force). And hypostrophe (“turning back”) has had several medical usages over the years—the tossing and turning of delirious people; a relapse of a disease that had been in remission; and as a synonym for what’s now more commonly called retroversion—the process by which an internal organ folds back on itself (never a good thing).

Greek strophos, “twisted cord” gives us the genus name Strophanthus (“twisted cord flower”), which includes some African species that were used to create arrow poisons. (The name comes from the fan of thin, twisting petals sported by some species.) The pharmacologically active ingredient of the arrow poison was extracted and named strophanthin—it has an action on the heart similar to that of digitalis. And just as digoxin is the purified drug made from digitalis, a drug called ouabain was made from strophanthin, its name deriving from Somali waabaayo, “arrow poison”. It was still something I learned about when I studied pharmacology back in the 1970s, but I never saw it used, and it has now  vanished from the pharmacopoeia.

Strophanthus hispidus, from Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen, Volume 2 (1889)

Finally, there’s boustrophedon, “ox-turning”. This originally referred to the path taken by a team of oxen pulling a plough—moving first from left to right, then turning at the end of a furrow so as to plough the next furrow from right to left. Then turning again, and repeating the process. It is applied to the Ancient Greek style of writing which was read in from left to right on one line and then from right to left (with the letters mirror-reversed) on the next. In (slightly) more modern times, it refers to the motion of the printing head of a dot-matrix printer, which would zip alternately from left to right and right to left, so that it printed every second line in the reverse of reading order.

And that concludes my turn for today.

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