Friday, February 22, 2008

A Name From O'Hell

If there's one thing you don't want trouble with, it's your name. But if you're Irish, you may be set up for a bit o' trouble. According to Sean ODriscoll of the Associated press, apostrophes can stop you from voting, destroy your dental appointments, make it difficult to rent a car or book a flight, even interfere with your college exams.

More than 50 years into the Information Age, computers are still getting confused by the apostrophe. It's a problem familiar to O'Connors, D'Angelos, N'Dours and D'Artagnans across America.

It's not just the bad luck o' the Irish. French, Italian and African names with apostrophes can befuddle computer systems, too. So can Arab names with hyphens, and Dutch surnames with "van" and a space in them.

A hyphen or apostrophe is often mistaken for a piece of computer code, corrupting the system. That's what happened during the Michigan caucus in 2004, when thousands of O'Connors, Al-Husseins, Van Kemps and others who went to the polls didn't have their votes counted.

In this year's primaries, the system worked much better, according to the Michigan Democratic Party. There have been isolated reports of problems elsewhere, but nothing on the scale of Michigan.

Still, an apostrophe, hyphen or space can interfere with medical and dental records, gym memberships, online searches or school registration.

Dutch-American proofreader Jessica van Campen has seen her name listed as Jessica Vancampen, Jessica Van, Jessicavan Campen, Jessica Campen and Jessican Kampen by uncertain computer systems. When she went to her finals in college, she was listed under Campen and was told Jessica Van Campen had dropped out of the course.

The Irish apostrophe began with the British, who put it there because they believed the O looked odd without a link to the rest of the name. Many Gaelic speakers in Ireland refuse to carry an apostrophe, considering it a vestige of colonial days.

The article's author, for his part, has thrown off his apostrophe. From now on he'll be known as Sean ODriscoll.

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