My name is Thomas O’Leary
Quite often when I want to buy something on the internet or try to reserve airline tickets I fill in all the necessary information, hit the submit button, and nothing happens. What might I have left out or typed wrong? The answer turns out to be not what I typed wrong or left out, but what I put in—the apostrophe.
For the most part, computers and apostrophes have never become fast friends. It’s a spotty situation. Online programs seem to have no trouble in accepting apostrophes when they are doing their two main assignments: subbing for omitted letters, as in “can’t” for “cannot,” or indicating possession, like “Where is the dog’s water bowl?” But come to being used in Irish names it’s game over. My little mark is treated as an unacceptable, non-conforming “foreign element.” Grrr.
Out of this frustration, and the sense that we were not alone, was born the idea to form the Keep the Apostrophe in Irish Names advocacy group along with my son Matt O'Leary.
What’s in a name? Our ethnic history
From ancient times, the Irish developed a complex personal naming system, based largely on a family’s history and relationships. Names consist of a first given name followed by a double patronym, using the father’s and grandfather’s names. An O with a small dash at the middle top (called a diacritical mark) meant “descended from” or “grandson” or “son of,” followed by the surname. “Mac” and “Fitz” serve the same purpose. Even though some Irish names are based on occupations and locations, family connections have always been more important and more commonly used for many centuries.
The Irish Times reports that when the death of Tigherneach Ó Cleirigh, a prominent lord of County Galway, was inscribed in the 916 Annals it was believed to be the oldest surname recorded anywhere in Europe. With more English influence felt around 1500 A.D. the Irish spelling of names was often changed to an English spelling using O with an apostrophe to stand in for the earlier Ó and its diacritical mark on top.
All of this rich history is threatened by the likes of a movement called Kill the Apostrophe. Its website states that it wants to remove the mark from the English language because “it serves only to annoy those who know how it is supposed to be used and to confuse those who dont (sic).” Of course, the website is concerned about the apostrophe’s use to fill in for omitted letters and its possessive duties, but if the mark is dropped from common usage (Starbucks and Hudsons Bay for instance) it will also disappear from computer keyboards, wiping out a vital part of the Irish naming system and the valuable cultural history it represents.
A rich history ignored
Obviously, there are folks out there in the commercial world who are either indifferent to this important feature in Irish names, or actually determined to do away with it. They belong to the same bunch who think teaching cursive writing in elementary school “takes too much time.” (Who needs to know how to read the original Declaration of Independence, sign their name, or read their grandmother's hand written letters? And who needs beautifully executed calligraphy anyway?)
Scripturient writer Ian Chadwick muses on the possible dropping of apostrophes: “Can you imagine what the Irish would do if they had no apostrophes? Would we write Obrien or OBrien or use a dash for O-Brien. One incorrect “solution,” which pops up regularly, is to simply pass the O off as your middle initial. Meanwhile, a few computer programs have figured out seemingly clumsy ways to deal with apostrophes. A printed version of my name can sometimes appear as O'Leary. This morning it was O'Leary on a car loan site.
A major bank that I attend regularly cannot accommodate my name being spelled correctly in its master files or on my credit card. The best the bank can do is print my last name correctly for my checkbook checks. A leading airline has me correctly in older files, but once it merged with a smaller line the apostrophe got dropped. The only way I can make a reservation is to telephone and asked not to be slapped with a special fee to book over the phone since the system has me in two conflicting versions that won’t accept me on line. Also, there is the worry that you’ll have problems with tight security at airport checkin, where a name on your ticket has to exactly match your ID documents.
I have a hunch that if robot computers had their way, we Irish and everybody else would be identified with numbers, like prisoners, or even worse with a quick scanning of our bar codes.
An expert opinion
For an expert's take on this topic, we chatted with Ashish Lakhiani, Computer Scientist, Software and Business Enthusiast with over 10 years of industry experience.
Is it technically possible for software applications to accept an apostrophe in the name input field?
Yes, it's possible. Information Technology specialists can develop code level checks, by writing a few more lines of code, to allow the usage of this character in name field data entry points of user interfaces (mobile, web, etc.).
Why doesn't every company just do that?
There are potential security implications. Computer Programmers and Information Security advisors aim to decrease the attack surface and strengthen the attack vectors in the systems that they develop. This is important for keeping systems safe from attackers. It’s common practice to decrease the opportunity for an end user to enter special characters such as (? | | " | % | \ | / | : | ‘ * | Due to their usage in popular programming languages like C, C++, PHP, C#, SQL, and Java many of these characters can trigger code execution in Information Systems if not handled correctly in the code. Although the intention of Computer Programmers and Information Security advisors is beneficial for end user safety, it is unfair to ask individuals to skip the apostrophe in their names due to this reason. With a little bit more work on code level checks this character can be allowed for use. Apostrophes in names have cultural value and help to make them unique in an artistic way. This character should be accommodated for names in software systems.