A Funny Thing About William

US Social Security records indicate that the five most popular boys’ names in 1915 were John, William, James, Robert, and Joseph.

In 2014, the top five were Noah, Liam, Mason, Jacob, and William.

Not only has William remained a popular given name for 100 years, it has become doubly popular with the newcomer Liam.

Liam is another version of William.

Of Germanic origin, William is a compound of the Old German element vila, “will” or “resolution,” and helm, “helmet.” The name can be translated as “helmet of resolution” and occurs in different forms in different modern languages:

German: Wilhelm
English: William
Irish: Ulliam (shortened to Liam)
French: Guillaume
Spanish: Guillermo
Italian: Guglielmo
Portuguese: Guilherme

According to an article at MooseRoots (a genealogy research engine), in 2014, William was the most popular name given to newborn boys in 14 states, and Liam the top name in 17 states. The article suggests that William is more popular in the South and Liam in the North, but a closer look at the state-by-state statistics given on another part of the site shows that in several of the states in which Liam is number one, William is close behind. In eleven states, both William and Liam rank in the top three:

North Dakota

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Daily Writing Tips

Pike’s Peak or Pikes Peak?

Attempts by city governments in England to drop apostrophes from official signage frequently provoke enraged opposition from local taxpayers, but in the United States, observes Jennifer Runyon, “We don’t debate the apostrophe.”

Runyon works for the US Board on Geographic Names, a federal body set up by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890 “to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government.” 

To be sure, some US apostrophe lovers do debate the apostrophe, but where the Board and the US Geological Survey are concerned, apostrophes are res non grata (“unwanted things”) when it comes to geographic names.

The prevailing rule is that the possessive apostrophe is not permitted in place names, but the Board does not forbid all apostrophe use. An apostrophe may be used to signify a missing letter, as in “Lake O’ the Woods,” or when the label is based on a surname, as in “O’Malley Hollow.”

To date, only five possessive apostrophes have been permitted to survive the Board’s no-apostrophe policy:

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Ike’s Point, New Jersey
John E’s Pond, Rhode Island
Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View, Arizona
Clark’s Mountain, Oregon

I haven’t a clue as to why.

Although many speakers probably write “Pike’s Peak” on their emails or postcards home, the apostrophe was dropped officially in 1890 by the newly established Board on Geographic Names.

According to the Wikipedia article “Pikes Peak,” the mountain has been known by several other names:

”Long Mountain” (Arapaho Heey-otoyoo)
“El Capitán” (named by Spanish explorers)
“Highest Peak” (named by Zubulon Pike who, by the way, never made it to the top)
“Pike’s Highest Peak”
“James Peak” (named in honor of Edwin James, who did reach the top)

Note: Dr. Edwin James travelled as botanist with Major Stephen H. Long’s expedition in 1820. Pike’s name won out for the summit known now as “Pikes Peak,” but a lesser peak on the Continental Divide west of Denver bears his name: “James Peak.”

As an inveterate English teacher, I suppose I ought to care about missing apostrophes on official signage, but I don’t. A sign that says Pikes Peak is no more jarring to me than a URL like victoriassecret.com. As far as I know, not even members of the Apostrophe Protection Society argue that apostrophes belong in URLs.

One of the arguments brought against the removal of possessive apostrophes on signs in the UK is that it’s confusing to children who are taught the rules in school.

Seeing a sign like “Scholars Walk,” “Princes Street,” “Queens College,” “Pikes Peak” or “Veterans Memorial” is not going to warp the brains of children by contradicting what they are being taught in school. If anything, such signs can be used to reinforce learning by using them as exercises. For example, “Where would you put the apostrophe according to the rule?”

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Daily Writing Tips

Different Meanings of Hallmark

Until recently, I attached only one figurative meaning to the word hallmark:

A distinctive mark or token of genuineness, good breeding, or excellence.

Here are some examples of the word used in the sense of a trait that denotes admirable excellence:

The hallmark of a scholar is attention to detail.

Indeed, if style, grace, intellect, and capacity for rebirth are the hallmarks of [a Renaissance woman], then Lois Wilson qualified in every sense.

The hallmark of an honest politician is an innate understanding that their most sacred duty is to fulfill the responsibilities of their office.  

Emotional intelligence is the hallmark of a good leader.

Osbeck also noted a fourth writing trait—elegance—which he describes as the “hallmark of great legal writing.”

Rereading, editing, and revising the initial draft into a good paper are the hallmarks of good writing.

In each of these examples, the idea of excellence is implicit in the word hallmark. This connotation of excellence derives from the word’s literal meaning: “a mark or device placed or stamped upon an article of trade to indicate origin, purity, or genuineness.”

The practice of placing marks of origin and authenticity on products made of gold or silver dates to the early Middle Ages. One such mark in England was a leopard’s head. In the 15th century, when a law required all goldsmiths to bring their wares to Goldsmiths’ Hall in London to be marked, the identifying device came to be known as a hallmark.

Hallmark seems to have retained its connotation of quality and excellence until the 20th century.

For example, the Hallmark Greeting Card Company was founded in 1910. Founder Joyce Clyde Hall felt that greeting cards “represented class.” Playing on the founder’s name and the goldsmith’s mark of excellence, the company adopted the name Hallmark in 1928.

By midcentury, however, writers had begun using the word absent its connotation of worthiness:

Do you know the hallmark of a second rater? It’s resentment of another man’s achievement.—Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957).

Writers familiar with the word’s positive associations continue to use it to denote excellence. For others, hallmark has devolved into a mere synonym for trait or “distinguishing characteristic”:

Ruthlessness, deception and devious behavior is [sic] the hallmark of the successful politician.

Expression of multiple horizontally acquired genes is a hallmark of both vertebrate and invertebrate genomes.

A Hallmark of Alzheimer’s Can Show Up in Young People Too

There’s even evidence that some speakers aren’t too sure that hallmark means trait:

Many researchers have also theorized that a lack of self-awareness is a hallmark trait of narcissists.

Writers who prefer to reserve hallmark to denote “proof of excellence,” may choose from the following list for words to convey the idea of trait or characteristic:


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Daily Writing Tips

Tracking an Odd Construction in the Media

The following usage struck me as odd when I read it in the roundup column that appears on the front page of my daily paper:

Rumsfeld says that George W. Bush was wrong to try to create democracy onto Iraq.

I assumed that “create democracy onto Iraq” was simply an unfortunate stylistic lapse on the part of a local harried reporter. It can’t be easy to fit an entire news item into one coherent sentence of fewer than 50 words, especially under a tight deadline. But then I did a Google search of “create democracy onto” and traced the phrase to the article in which it originated:

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of the staunchest defenders of the Iraq war, said in an interview with the Times of London that his boss, former President George W. Bush, was wrong to try to create democracy onto Iraq.— David Knowles, Bloomberg

One might attempt to create a democracy in Iraq or even for Iraq, but “to create a democracy onto Iraq” is not idiomatic English. To rule out the possibility that Rumsfeld was responsible for the odd wording, I tracked down his original comment in the Times:

The idea that we could fashion a democracy in Iraq seemed to me unrealistic.

Rumsfeld was not the culprit. The word that he did use, fashion (“to give shape to”) is an appropriate choice in the context of altering an existing system.

Create is from Latin creare, “to procreate or to give birth.” One meaning of the verb create is “to bring into being, to cause to exist,” especially with the sense of “to produce something where nothing was before.”

Some synonyms for create in the sense of produce or make:

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Daily Writing Tips

Is “Dystopic” a Word?

When in a recent post I referred to “Orwell’s dystopic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four,” a reader from the Czech Republic asked when the adjective dystopic should be used instead of dystopian.

After referring to my usual authorities and giving the matter some thought, my answer is: “never.”

That’s not to say that the form dystopic isn’t to be heard and seen. I think my use of it in the article may stem from frequent reading of film criticism. For example:

The L.A. of Ridley Scott’s film was a dreary, dark, dystopic nightmare set in 2019.—Laist, Los Angeles website.

Best dystopic/post-apocalyptic films ever made—IMDb (InternetMovieDataBase) headline.

The movie [Wall-E] represents a dystopic world view.—Global Cinema.

Insurgent review—well-oiled dystopic action—headline over review of Divergent in The Guardian (UK).

The OED does not have an entry for dystopic, although it does have one for utopic.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged does not have an entry for either dystopic or utopic, although the entry for dystopia (“malposition of an anatomical part”) in the M-W medical dictionary gives dystopic as the adjective form.

The first appearance of dystopic on the Ngram Viewer is in 1903. Dystopic shows a steady rise from 1988 to 1999, before leveling off, still way below dystopian in frequency.

Some sites use dystopic consistently; others switch between dystopic and dystopian in the same article. Still others, like PopMatters, have some articles that use dystopic throughout and others that stick to dystopian as the only adjective form.

Bottom line: Dystopic is a word in the sense that people do use it, but the preferred adjective form for dystopia in the sense of a really bad place is dystopian.

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Daily Writing Tips


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