Mind Your Language: King Charles's Head

By Wordsworth, Dot | The Spectator, April 15, 2017 | Go to article overview

Mind Your Language: King Charles's Head


Wordsworth, Dot, The Spectator


'It has become something of a King Charles' head, or should that be a King Charles's head?' said my husband, laughing, as though he had made a joke. By 'it' he meant the apostrophe, which forces its way into any discussion of grammar, just as the head of the King and Martyr forced itself into the memorandum that Mr Dick, the amiable lunatic, was attempting to write to the Lord Chancellor in David Copperfield (1850).

Looking through the book, I found the exact phrase once, when Mr Dick mentions to David that 'the mistake was made of putting some of the trouble out of King Charles's head into my head'. So that is the original

form, even though the Oxford English Dictionary quotes a 20th-century example of 'King Charles' head'.

I think the apostrophe (one of the simplest elements in grammar to deploy) exerts such mesmeric fascination because, after plural nouns ending in --s, it merely signifies a possessive and is not reflected in speech. The history is complicated, but in Old English (before the Conquest) --es was a singular genitive termination. This we still find in Chaucer, who writes of a cattes skin and a hogges turd, with each animal becoming two syllables in the possessive case. …

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