The Diaeresis Divide

What’s the deal with The New Yorker’s umlaut?

Winter, 2012–2013 / No. 29

Of all the grammar questions Taddle Creek is asked—and it is asked quite a few, given its penchant for ranting about such things on a semi-regular basis—perhaps the one it hears the most is, “What’s the deal with The New Yorker and its umlaut? ” Taddle Creek hates to speak for another magazine in regard to its editorial habits, but thought it would see what it could do to answer authoritatively the question that has so perplexed its readers.

But before Taddle Creek answers, allow it to give two bits of important background information.

First, though it looks identical to one, the diacritic in question is not an umlaut, but rather a diaeresis. An umlaut is a German invention, used both to change how a word is pronounced and its meaning. A diaeresis, on the other hand, whose name comes from the Greek for “divide,” works much in the same way a hyphen does to indicate syllables. For example, where Taddle Creek (and most publications using British spelling: -our, -re, and the like) would spell the word meaning “to work together” as “co-operation,” the New Yorker would spell it “coöperation.” Common practice among most publications practicing American spelling (your -or and -er types) is to omit both symbols, settling for “cooperation.” While somewhat pedestrian looking, this latter spelling style isn’t terribly problematic, but can lead to a lack of consistency when one encounters a word that just begs for a hyphen, such as “co-op.”

Second, Taddle Creek is a big fan of the New Yorker’s brave insistence on using a piece of punctuation that, in 2012, is too obscure for even Taddle Creek to use. (The magazine actually would happily become a diaeresis-positive zone if it felt usage wouldn’t invite unfavourable New Yorker–wannabe comments.) Stick to your guns, New Yorker. Don’t let the punctuation fascists who convinced you to stop capitalizing “E-mail” break you of this charming habit.

Taddle Creek was in New York recently and took the opportunity to eventually return to Toronto and speak via E-mail to Mary Norris, of the New Yorker’s copy department. Mary explains that, back in that magazine’s early days, the powers that be, in evaluating their options, decided “cooperation” could be misread and “co-operation” “was ridiculous” (!). And so, the use of the diaeresis was settled on as an “elegant solution” (this was the nineteen-twenties, after all), resulting in a charmingly New Yorker-y New Yorker-ism still loved/hated by readers today.

“We stick with the diaeresis because we think it’s the best solution,” Mary told Taddle Creek, adding that the diaeresis is the single thing letter-writing readers of the New Yorker complain about the most. “Our predecessors obviously thought so. It might change someday, but the current head of the copy department likes it.”

Mary, in fact, wrote a fascinating blog entry in which she told the story of the one time the diaeresis almost met its end at her magazine, and which she thoughtfully allowed Taddle Creek to share with its readers: “My predecessor…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.”

Taddle Creek certainly hopes no foul play was involved in Mr. Weekes’s unfortunate passing, but is glad fate found a way to intervene. The New Yorker without a diaeresis is like Taddle Creek without an en dash.

While the magazine had her attention, it further asked Mary how and when the New Yorker decides when the time is right to make a change to its style. “Our switch from ‘E-mail’ to ‘e-mail’ is a good example of the way things change,” she said. “A particular writer—a good writer and frequent, essential contributor—objected to the capital ‘E,’ saying that everyone else lower-cased it, and the way we did it made us look out of it—not just old-fashioned but benighted. That’s the way style changes happen: someone pitches a fit, and there is no good reason to resist. Other things we’ve changed style on, because someone who has expertise in a field has suggested (or insisted): ‘czar’ became ‘tsar’; ‘Teheran’ became ‘Tehran.’ There’s no pattern; we just want to do things right, and we don’t want to look antiquated.”

Taddle Creek thinks the New Yorker just called the magazine antiquated. Hmm. Food for thought. Thank you, Mary, for shedding light on this subject.