As far as I can tell, without getting into the possessive apostrophe, they have related functions: The apostrophe mark denotes a missing character (or series of characters) in the contraction of a word or phrase and the rhetorical device represents turning away from addressing the audience and addressing someone or something that is (usually) not present.

I realise this is potentially a chicken vs egg question but recently I found myself wondering this: Assuming they are related, which came first or which was named after which?


The figurative meaning of "turning away" came first, from which the mark showing where a letter has been omitted:

apostrophe (n.):

  • mark indicating omitted letter, 1580s, from Middle French apostrophe, from Late Latin apostrophus, from Greek apostrophos (prosoidia) "(the accent of) turning away," thus, a mark showing where a letter has been omitted, from apostrephein "avert, turn away," from apo- "from" (see apo-) + strephein "to turn" (see strophe).

  • In English, the mark often represents loss of -e- in -es, possessive ending. It was being extended to all possessives, whether they ever had an -e- or not, by 18c. Greek also used this word for a "turning aside" of an orator in speech to address some individual, a sense first recorded in English 1530s.


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  • Thanks. I am aware they share broadly the same etymology in that 'apostrophe' means 'turning away', but I was really interested in the relationship between the rhetorical device and the mark. Judging from your references, it looks like it's impossible to guess which gave its name to which. – user121341 Jun 7 '16 at 10:00
  • 2
    @AndrewMartin - As you can see from the extract above, the rethorical figure was used in English at least five decades before the orthographic sense. – user66974 Jun 7 '16 at 10:26

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