One word we can't seem to get enough of these days—hint: not slacks!—is diaeresis. Actually, that's completely untrue. We've already gotten plenty of the word. In fact, we called it out last week when The New Yorker's Ben Greenman introduced the magazine's new game, Questioningly, which challenges readers to provide a funny answer to a question. The first question was, "If you could eliminate a single word from the English language, what would it be?" In response, we asked, "If you could eliminate a single word from The New Yorker, what would it be?"
Our first suggestion for elimination:
coöperation. While the web-only content appears blissfully free of this little quirk, it's all over the pages of the actual magazine, and it never fails to give us pause. Why so archaic, New Yorker? (See also reëlect; see also: "diaeresis"—that's what those not-umlauts are.)
Yep, diaeresis. Despite our suggestion, the word only managed to echo in our own ears, painfully, much like an ill-tuned violin, as The New Yorker instead chose to eliminate the beautiful, elegant, kind and emotionally available word slacks. Slacks! Until now. Yes, The New Yorker has mounted a diaeresis defense.
Hard to spell, harder to pronounce ("die heiresses," instructs Mary Norris in The New Yorker), possibly still harder to comprehend, the diaeresis consists of those wee dots that lurk atop the second vowel in two that come right next to each other to, as Norris writes, "indicates that it forms a separate syllable." To New Yorker readers, anyway.
She continues, "Most of the English-speaking world finds the diaeresis inessential." The New Yorker, as we mentioned previously, does not, even though, as Norris writes, the diaeresis is a complete and total pain in the butt. Autocorrect tries to kill it, which means she must apply complex ministrations—"I have to go back, highlight the letter, hold down the option key while pressing the 'u,' and then retype the appropriate letter" to get it to stick. In this day and age of 24-hour news cycles and the omnipresent fear of typos caused by bleariness and exhaustion, that's plain crazy talk!
Additionally, people don't even need it. People don't really have trouble saying "cooperation" or "reelect"—and if they do, those two dots are likely to do more harm than good. And what about the eye problems that might ensue, the fear of having a stroke (what with those odd specks appearing in one's line of sight), not to mention any possible future carpal tunnel troubles for the unlucky Ms. Norris? Her autocorrect fix sounds painful! (These points are ours, not hers.) But in truth, we are concerned.
As for the option of switching to the hyphen: "co-operation," in the early days of The New Yorker, that was apparently dubbed ridiculous, and we agree. Nonetheless, everyone hates the diaeresis. But then, Norris explains the best part. See, the deal is, the diaeresis is cursed. She writes,
We do change our style from time to time. My predecessor (and the former keeper of the comma shaker) told me that she used to pester the style editor, Hobie Weekes, who had been at the magazine since 1928, to get rid of the diaeresis. She found it fussy. She said that once, in the elevator, he told her he was on the verge of changing that style and would be sending out a memo soon. And then he died.
This was in 1978. No one has had the nerve to raise the subject since.
OK, you win, New Yorker. We're actually sort of terrified now. Kill slacks, let the editors live! Clearly, the diaeresis is a force to be reckoned with.
Image via Shutterstock by Bernd Juergens.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.