Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Another holiday already. The third Monday of February is Presidents’ Day.
Or is it Presidents Day?
Or is it President’s Day?
I started out researching this holiday and its history. And I’ll include a bit of that. But I quickly got distracted by the different ways different sources punctuated the name of the day. Does it take an apostrophe or not? And if so, where does it go?
That apostrophe actually makes a difference in the meaning, at least a little bit. So allow me to nerd out a little bit.
The first site I went to, Calendar-365.com lists the dates of a holiday and gives a bit of background. The heading on the page for this holiday was
"Presidents Day and Washington's Birthday 2017, 2018 and further"
The first sentences are consistent:
"View below the dates for (among others) Presidents Day and Washington's Birthday 2017 and Presidents Day and Washington's Birthday 2018."
But then the subheadings are
"Significance of President's Day 2017"
And so on for all the other subheading and most of the text.
Notice that the main heading includes no apostrophe for Presidents, but Washington’s Birthday does deserve an apostrophe.
What’s the difference?
What fun for us language nerds to consider!
Before we can interpret the different potential meanings, we need to know a bit of the history of this day and its changing name. The history lesson will be brief.
Presidents Day (I’ll use this form while talking about its origins) replaced Washington’s Birthday as a holiday. Washington’s Birthday, February 22, had been recognized since 1800, the year after George Washington’s death, and anointed a federal holiday for the entire country in 1885. Later, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday was also celebrated in some states, and, since his birthday was somewhere around February 12, the celebration of the two revered presidents’ birthdays was also combined.
When I was a child in the 1960s, I distinctly remember celebrating Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday together. Of course, it was also around my birthday, and readers of last week’s column already know how resentful I can be of anyone horning in on my birthday. I wonder if George Washington is ticked that he has to share his birthday celebration with that Lincoln upstart and now all the other presidents? Or maybe I’m projecting, since he is dead, after all.
It wasn’t until 1971 that a law (passed in 1968) went into effect making the third Monday in February Presidents Day. Here’s how the Calendar-365 site summarizes it:
"Initially, President's Day was called Washington's Birthday. The shift from Washington's Birthday to Presidents' Day began in the late 1960s when Congress proposed a measure known as the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. This law sought to shift the celebration of several federal holidays from specific dates to a series of predetermined Mondays."
And we’re back to apostrophes. You may have noticed that this one paragraph shifts from “President’s Day” to “Presidents’ Day,” without comment. So we have three versions of Presidents/Presidents’/President’s Day and one apostrophed Washington’s Birthday.
I love thinking about the rhetorical effects of even small linguistic choices, so let’s play a moment with the choice of an apostrophe or not.
I know my readers know the meaning of a possessive apostrophe, so you recognize that the birthday belongs to Washington; it’s his day, so he gets an apostrophe. But which president is being given the day of President’s Day?
Notice when it’s punctuated that way it’s singular, just one president. By all rights, that one president should be George Washington since President’s Day stole his birthday celebration. If not Washington, it surely can’t refer to a single president. Maybe it stands for any president. It could be some sort of generalized category—the day that belongs to “president,” that executive of the United States.
That’s where “Presidents’ Day” comes in. Shifting that apostrophe to come after the plural “Presidents” makes the day belong to all the presidents of the past. It’s their day, not his day (yep, all those presidents have been male—still are). So there was the holiday that belonged to Washington, his birthday, and now the holiday that belongs to all past presidents, their day. Like Veterans’ Day, perhaps, belonging to all the veterans.
But does it belong to those presidents (or those veterans) at all? What different meaning did the heading writers give us with “Presidents Day”? The official USA government site calls it “Veterans Day,” no apostrophe. What does taking away an apostrophe do?
Presidents Day becomes like Independence Day, Labor Day, Christmas Day—the day the country celebrates presidents/independence/labor/Christmas, and veterans on Veterans Day.
(I’ve got to point out again that some of our holidays in the US are different. Thanksgiving is the only one that includes a verb, giving thanks, as I wrote about in a post last November. Memorial Day seems different, too. It’s not the day we celebrate memorial. More like Thanksgiving, without the verb, it’s the day to memorialize, or to remember.)
Oh wait! There’s “New Year’s Day”! That is one where, like Independence Day, we celebrate the new year, but it has an apostrophe! So the day belongs to the New Year? No, but it works with another apostrophe rephrasing—it’s the day of the new year.
Here are examples of the apostrophe to “show possession” from Cambridge dictionaries. Most of them could be “of” rather than “belonging to”:
We spent Christmas Day with Ben's parents.
This book is the fruit of 15 years' research.
Simon has a clear-sighted vision of the company's future.
Our neighbour's baby cries morning, noon and night.
I'm sure my views on marriage are coloured by my parents' divorce.
Notice how many of those sentences make more sense rephrased with “of” instead of “belong to.”
Parents of Ben (they don’t belong to Ben)
Research of 15 years (the years don’t possess the research)
Future of the company (but I can imagine the future belonging to the company, like the birthday belongs to Washington)
The baby does belong to the neighbours
Divorce of my parents (I’m sure the parents don’t want to own the divorce)
Presidents’ Day, then, can be the day of presidents, like New Year’s Day is the day of the new year.
(Just so you know, a big black hole lies behind the history, meanings, and uses of apostrophes. You could get lost in John R. Taylor's 384-page book from 1976 on Possessives in English: An Exploration in Cognitive Grammar. Or if you have access to scholarly journals, you could read an old, delightful history of "The Possessive Apostrophe: The Development and Decline of a Crooked Mark" from Elizabeth Sklar in 1976.)
OK, so we’ve got holidays that belong to individuals they’re named after—Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday, (Saint) Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and maybe even April Fool’s Day, named after all us fools. (Uh oh, why isn’t that plural? April Fools’ Day? Start looking and you’ll find the same three possibilities for April Fools—some call it April Fool’s, others April Fools’, and some April Fools.)
I need some other sources.
Timeanddate.com calls it Presidents’ Day but Veterans Day.
Holidays.net also calls it Presidents’ Day and Veterans Day.
The US Postal Service calls it Presidents' Day and Veterans Day.
Searching newspaper databases and search engines just proved to me that all three forms are common.
I need some other, authoritative sources.
The hive mind of Wikipedia calls the holidays Veterans Day and . . . “Washington’s Birthday.”
It turns out that the United States government avoids the problem altogether by calling the day “Washington’s Birthday.” Not trusting Wikipedia alone, I had to follow a thread from the US government’s website to the official list of federal holidays on the Office of Personnel Management page of Snow and Dismissal Procedures to learn why, in a tiny footnote below the official list of federal holidays:
"This holiday is designated as "Washington’s Birthday" in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law."
So there. In fact, that Uniform Monday Holiday Act never changed the name of the day to any version of Presidents Day. We could all just avoid the problem if we went back to the original and called it Washington’s Birthday. To be factual, we’d have to return the holiday to February 22, too. Let’s give the man back his birthday!!
Short of a revolution of the masses whose birthdays have been stolen by other holidays (and it turns out, as I discovered last week, there are many, many of us), we probably have to live with Presidents Day. In that case, I vote for Presidents Day, no apostrophe. It fits the pattern of other holidays that honor a concept or group—Independence Day, Labor Day, Veterans Day. The day we honor all past presidents, who need to own nothing but a title.
What a difference a little punctuation mark makes!
If you’re still reading, thanks for nerding along with me. Feel free to let me know if you’d vote for President’s or Presidents’ or if you want to lead the revolution. I’m with you.