Why Are So Many London Shops Losing Their Apostrophes?

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 24 months ago
Why Are So Many London Shops Losing Their Apostrophes?

The apostrophe is fast being forgotten in modern London. Many shops which used to have it on their storefronts have discarded the punctuation mark. Ditching the apostrophe has been happening for years now, so we decided to look at some London mainstays and when and why they lost theirs.

Photo: Rick Payette under a Creative Commons license

Selfridges

The missing apostrophes this article deals with are all possessive in nature. They indicate a name owning the store. Harry Gordon Selfridge lived life with many possessions. As the TV show Mr Selfridge demonstrates, the man's prized belonging was his flagship store on Oxford Street. By the 1930s, Mr Selfridge was in serious debt to the store because of his luxurious lifestyle, and he was ruthlessly ousted from his own business. Since the store no longer belonged to him, the apostrophe was callously removed.

Hamleys

There's little explanation as to why Hamleys dropped its apostrophe. The firm traded as Hamley's until about 1911, when it started to be referred to as Messrs Hamleys Bros. That lasted until 1920 when it switched again to just Messrs Hamleys and shortly afterwards, it devolved to Hamleys.

It's worth noting that dropping an apostrophe in the early 20th century might not have sparked the same outrage that it does nowadays. The apostrophe was one of the last pieces of punctuation to become part of the stabilised English language. It was a European export, originating in France and making the jump over the Channel in the 16th century. It was then subject to much experimentation and its use changed over time.

By the time Hamleys dropped its apostrophe, it was really just a smaller part of a wider movement. In the same period, playwright George Bernard Shaw was at the height of his career. He famously despised apostrophes, dropping them from all of his plays. So these stores might just have been following the example of the period's literary intelligentsia, which is a solid defence.

Photo: kat under a Creative Commons license

Harrods

It's difficult to pin down when Harrods lost its apostrophe. In the 19th century, the shop was called Harrod's after founder Charles Henry Harrod. By 1909, it was using the name Harrods' Stores Limited; the "Stores" was dropped in 1920 and the apostrophe disappeared for good at around the same time. However, there's much evidence of some products labelled apostrophe-less long before this, showing that Harrod's and Harrods co-existed for a time.

Harrods is a key example of an ongoing and fascinating trend. Most of the stores which have dropped their apostrophes are high-end, aimed at the middle and upper classes. Some major brands which still have their apostrophes, such as McDonald's and Sainsbury's, are less high-end. The snobbish caricature of the greengrocer's apostrophe — in which an uneducated greengrocer repeatedly misuses the punctuation mark — comes to mind here. It's interesting to find that the upmarket stores are the ones setting a grammatically incorrect example.

Waterstones

Many Londoners will remember this apostrophe disappearing. It only happened in 2012 and ignited a public outcry. Waterstone's was a haven to English literature and, by association, the English language, so rebranding as the grammatically incorrect Waterstones was contentious.

The reasons behind the drop are fascinating. Waterstones claims that dropping an apostrophe was necessary in the digital age. Waterstones's managing director James Daunt said that apostrophes were difficult to incorporate into URLs and email accounts, and that losing the apostrophe made the company more "versatile".

He also pointed out that Waterstone's was a more fitting name when the business was run by its founder Tim Waterstone. He no longer has any involvement and Daunt felt this change represented that Waterstones is no longer run by one person but the "continued contributions of thousands of individual booksellers." Curiously, the same James Daunt also founded Daunt Books, but notice the lack of possessive s or apostrophe in that store's name

So the story should end for Waterstones, but then why does the Gower Street branch still look like this? According to the company itself, this discrepancy occurs because the store has not been refitted since the rebranding.

A thoroughly confusing current Waterstones storefront on Gower Street. Photo: Londonist

Debenhams

We can't seem to find much on when Debenhams ditched the apostrophe (it was founded by a William Clark and William Debenham, so the possessive s is deserving of an apostrophe). We have, however, found evidence that the store doesn't have a complete grasp of how the punctuation mark works.

These are just a handful of stores that dropped their apostrophes. Others include Currys, Stanfords, Boots and Lloyds Bank to name just a few. If you've got any theories as to why the punctuation mark is disappearing, let us know in the comments.

Last Updated 21 October 2016