Stories abound as to how the Island of Martha’s Vineyard got its name.
But there are no volumes which tell the tale of how it got its apostrophe.
Or that said apostrophe is protected by federal decree.
In the first of his three-volume History of Martha’s Vineyard published in 1911, George Banks wrote, “There was great uncertainty in the 17th century, even among the inhabitants of the island, as to its correct name . . . But at length, Martha, whoever she was, triumphed over them all, and for two centuries the Vineyard has had her name as a prefic unchallenged, and without rival.”
Mr. Banks did not know the whole story.
In 1890, United States President Benjamin Harrison established the United States Board on Geographic Names in an effort to settle contradictions and inconsistencies over geographic names which emerged following the Civil War.
Based in Reston, Va., the board exists to this day and is to thank for restoring the ‘h’ to Pittsburgh and splitting Bel Air into a two-word name.
Since its inception, the board has enforced a strict policy discouraging the use of apostrophes in place names. The board’s Web site gives no firm reason for the policy, but suggests a few theories: that historically, an apostrophe looked too much like a rock in water when printed on a map, or that the board did not want to show possession for natural features. According to the archives of the Vineyard Gazette, one of the first actions taken by the board was to enforce its policy on the United States Post Office Department. Thus in 1894, the official department guide wiped out 1,665 apostrophes across the country, regardless of local custom or history.
In 1933, a rabble from the Vineyard fought back.
Beaten into submission, and breaking with its longstanding policy, the board approved the use of the apostrophe in Martha’s Vineyard. “In the 1920s, the Edgartown folk raised such a howl that federaldom put it back,” reads a type-written letter sent to former Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough by a disgruntled resident of Thompson Point (formerly Thompson’s Point), Vermont. In his 1949 supplement to The American Language, the influential American writer and prose stylist H. L. Mencken referenced the decision and described the effort as a vigorous local protest.
According to the New York Times, the United States Board on Geographic Names receives some 30 apostrophe applications each year. Only four places have followed in the footsteps of the Vineyard and been granted a legal apostrophe. They are Ike’s Point in New Jersey (granted in 1944 because, according to the board Web site, it would be unrecognizable otherwise), John E’s Pond in Rhode Island (1963, because otherwise it could be confused with John S Pond — note that neither pond has a period in its name, the use of which the board also discourages), Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View in Arizona (1995, otherwise three apparently given names in succession would dilute the meaning of seeing the Joshua trees) and Clark’s Mountain in Oregon (2002, to correspond with the personal references of Lewis and Clark).
The Gazette archives do not chronicle the extensive local campaign of the 1930s, but there is indication of a renewed threat to that apostrophe in the mid 1960s after rumor spread that the initial ruling would be put aside. “There can be few names more expressive and intrinsically satisfying and beautiful than Martha’s Vineyard, and few so deprived of rightness and symmetry as the ravished Marthas Vineyard,” Mr. Beetle Hough wrote in a 1965 editorial.
A few years later, after James Reston became publisher of the Gazette, the Washington Post had this to say: “Delete that apostrophe and we can expect journalistic thunder from the usually mild-mannered James Reston, the Washington-based New York Times columnist, who also is publisher of the weekly Vineyard Gazette.”
Reached at his home this week, Arthur Railton, former editor of the Dukes County Intelligencer, mused on the use of the apostrophe and its placement in the Island name. “An apostrophe suggests ownership, and Martha never owned a vineyard of course, so I don’t know how it got there,” he said. “I’m glad it’s there,” he continued. “Without an apostrophe, it seems like a different name. With the apostrophe, it makes it sound as though it is Martha’s vineyard, but without the apostrophe, I don’t know what it would be.”
Basil Welch, the octogenarian cemetery superintendent in Chilmark, was similarly perplexed. “I’ve never heard of it. I don’t know the reason for it,” said the man who spends his days walking among the gravestones of Chilmarkers gone by and knows a thing or two about Vineyard lore. “Why would they frown upon an apostrophe?” he asked. Although he could not speculate as to the origin of the apostrophe, he did have his own take on how this Island received its name. “Bartholomew Gosnold had three daughters and he named a group of islands, one after each daughter,” Mr. Welch recounted. “There was Elizabeth, who got the Elizabethan Islands, Martha, who had her Vineyard, and there was only one island left, so Nan took it!”
“Well, this is news to me,” said Chris Scott, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, a nonprofit organization which maintains and preserves historic Vineyard landmarks, when asked about the positioning of the punctuation. “We’ve all known that Martha’s Vineyard is a very special place and this gives us reason to think it’s even more special.” He remembered a tale told by Matthew Stackpole, former executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. “Bartholomew Gosnold is credited with naming both Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Scott said. “From the accounts of the voyage, there was an enormous number of cod offshore, so he named it Cape Cod. When he got to Martha’s Vineyard, he found even more cod, but he had already named the Cape, so he named the Island after his mother in law, who subsidized his voyage. If he had gotten here first, it could have been Martha’s Cape and Cod Island. It could have been the Cape’s problem with the apostrophe!”
As history shows, the Vineyard has clung to its apostrophe over the years, but recently, the punctuation mark has been something of a bugaboo for this newspaper.
After a recent makeover of the Gazette home page (mvgazette.com), the Web browser Google stopped including Gazette articles in its Google news alerts. The reason? Two types of apostrophes are used in technology coding. The old Gazette Web site used a software code with the standard apostrophe; the new one uses a code and an apostrophe which Google does not read.
What’s a veteran Googler to do?
Until he can solve the problem, the Gazette’s webmaster has a suggestion.
“You should type Martha Vineyard, no apostrophe and no ‘s’,” he said.