Sarabande illustration


“Many people before me have worked at different times to put dances down on paper through the use of various marks [par le moyen de quelques Signes]; but because their work has not borne fruit, I have tried to bring my own [work] far enough along to make it useful to the public; it is true that Furetière’s Dictionnaire Historique, under the heading ORC, mentions a dance book in which steps are transcribed with musical notes [nottez avec des nottes de Musique], but this book is unavailable [ne se trouve pas]. Here’s what Furetière says.

[‘]There is a curious treatise by Thoinet Arbeau, printed in Langres in 1588, which he entitled ORCHESOGRAPHIE; he is the first or perhaps the only one to have transcribed [notté] and represented [figuré] the steps of his era’s dance in the same way one would transcribe songs and airs.[’]

So we are obligated to that author for having given us the first ideas about describing dance, though there are those who’d like to say that our debt should be to Holland.

Of all the marks, characters, and figures that I have been able to invent, I have employed in the current work only those that have seemed to me the most appropriate and illustrative, and I have tried to explain clearly everything necessary to facilitate their usage. [De tous les Signes, Caracteres & Figures que j’ay pû inventer, je n’ay employé dans cet Ouvrage que ceux qui m’ont paru les plus propres & les plus démonstratifs, & j’ay tâché d’expliquer clairement tout ce qui peut être necessaire, pour en rendre l’usage facile.]

One can’t deny that this will be very useful and advantageous to dancing masters, as much to those in Paris as to those in the provinces and even other kingdoms, and finally to students because both one and all, with the help of the marks, characters, and figures that I give, will be easily able to read [déchiffrer] dances just as one reads the transcriptions of musical airs [comme on déchiffre les Airs de Musique nottez].”

So begins the preface to Raoul Auger Feuillet’s Chorégraphie ou l’art de décrire la dance par caracteres, figures, et signes démonstratifs, avec lesquels on apprend facilement de soy-même toutes sortes de dances [‘Choreography, or the Art of Describing Dance by Characters, Figures, and Descriptive Marks, with Which One Easily Learns by Oneself All Sorts of Dances’]. Published in 1701, Feuillet’s Chorégraphie was remarkable in a number of respects, not the least for offering chorégraphie (whence, with a minor tweak, English choreography) as an alternative to orchésographie as the standard term for the orthographic representation of dance. (The choré– part of chorégraphie is from Greek χορεία ‘dancing’ while the orchéso– part of orchésographie is from Greek ὀρχεῖσθαι ‘to dance,’ an ὀρχήστρα ‘orchestra’ having originally been the area of the theatre in which dancers performed.) As an indication of the extent of its success, two translations of the work into English appeared virtually simultaneously in 1706, one by the English dancing master John Weaver (Orchesography, or the Art of Dancing by Characters and Demonstrative Figures wherein The whole Art is explain’d; with compleat tables of all Steps us’d in Dancing, and Rules for the Motions of the Arms, etc. whereby Any Person (who understands Dancing) may of himself learn all manner of Dances being An Exact and Just Translation from the French of Monsieur Feuillet) and the other by the somewhat less well remembered dancing master, P. Siris (The Art of Dancing Demonstrated by Characters and Figures; whereby one may learn easily, and of One’s Self, all sorts of Dances, being a Work very useful to all such as practice Dancing, especially Masters. Done from the French of Monsieur Feuillet, with many Alterations in the Characters, and an Addition of the English Rigaudon, and French Bretagne).

Both Weaver and Siris wrote prefaces to their translations (replacing Feuillet’s) in which they called attention to the role that Pierre Beauchamp had played in the creation of the notational system that Feuillet claimed to have invented. (One can’t help but wonder at Feuillet’s choice of the verb inventer (as in “tous les Signes, Caracteres & Figures que j’ay pû inventer”), which originally meant something more like ‘come upon, discover,’ and then ‘come up with, create.’

  • Weaver: “I persuade my self, that before so useful a Curiosity as the following Treatise, it would not be disagreeable to the Reader, to give him an Account of the Origin and Progress of the Art of Orchesography. Furetiere, in his Historical Dictionary, tells us of a curious Treatise of this Art by one Thoinet Arbeau, printed 1588, at Langres, from whom Monsieur Feuillet, in his Preface, supposes this Art to date its first Rise and Birth, tho’ he could never procure a sight of it to be found in Paris. But this very Book falling into my hands, I took care to peruse it with great attention, but found it far short of that Expectation, which such Recommendation had rais’d in me: For tho’it might perhaps have given the Hint to Mr Beauchamp, yet it is nothing but an imperfect Draught, nor is it confined to Dancing, since it treats besides of beating the Drum, playing the Pipe, and the like. But notwithstanding this blind Hint of Arbeau, to do Justice to Mr Beauchamp, we must attribute to him the Invention of this Art, who in all probability, could no more see the former Book than Mons. Feuillet. But as no Art was ever invented and perfected at once, so it remain’d for Mons. Feuillet to raise the compleat and finish’d Superstructure on Mons. Beauchamp’s Foundation…”
  • Siris: “…It is to this last Gentleman [Feuillet] that France is Endebted for The Art of demonstrating Dancing by Characters and Figures, which he publish’d about six Years since; but ‘tis to Monsieur Beauchamp, nevertheless, that the Invention of the Art is wholly owing. I can assure you, on my Word, since he himself taught me the Grounds of it above Eighteen Years ago, but tho’ through an unaccountable Negligence he delay’d the publishing of it from Time to Time, it must needs be no small concern to him to see that another has all the Honour and Advantage of what cost him so much Study and Labor.”

Indeed, M Beauchamp, King Louis XIV’s dancing master and undisputed codifier of the canonical five basic ballet feet positions, filed a complaint with the king against Feuillet (and two other dance masters, André Lorin and a certain Sieur De la Haise) on the grounds that Feuillet et al. were basically eating his lunch, having been granted privilège du roi (an early form of copyright protection) to publish annotated dances while he was unable to exercise such privilege. Countersuits ensued, and the whole affair ended with Beauchamp’s being declared the inventor of the notational system promulgated by Feuillet but, because Beauchamp had never published, Feuillet and Lorin got to go on publishing as before. Lorin seems to have contented himself with publishing a couple of volumes of annotated English country dances while De la Haise quietly disappeared into the mists of history. Beauchamp died the year after the case was settled.

Subsequent dancing masters both in France and England added refinements to the Beauchamp-Feuillet system, as did Feuillet himself. The basic building blocks of the system remained the same, however, each dance step being represented by an elaboration of a basic schema

right foot diagram

Feuillet’s Right Foot

in which the dot (here marked A) shows the foot’s location at the beginning of the step (forward), the line labeled B represents the path the step is to travel, the line labeled C represents the foot, D the heel, and E the point of the foot. Marks may be added to B, it may be curved instead of straight, and the whole figure may be turned upside down to represent a step backwards, and all of this may be shown in mirror image to represent the adventures of the left foot.

So, for example, here are the building blocks for the eighth (final) step in the annotated sarabande (from Kellom Tomlinson’s 1735 The Art of Dancing Explained by Reading and Figures Whereby the Manner of Performing the Steps is Made Easy by a New and Familiar Method Being the Original Work First Design’d in the Year 1724) reproduced above:

Sarabande Measure 8

Sarabande’s Eighth Step for Two Dancers

(The little railroad ties mark the beginning and end of the musical measure during which the steps are to be executed; the barely legible 8s shown here designate the specific musical measure in question.)

Building Blocks

Building Blocks

So, if you’re the dancer on the right facing front, on the eighth measure of music for the sarabande, you bend your left leg, step backwards, and rise; step backwards with your right foot; bend your left leg, step backwards, and rise. But before trying this at home, you may want to consult one or another of the dance manuals at,+manuals,+etc+++Early+works+to+1800++)).


“If you can walk, you can dance” and “The music tells you what to do” are well-meant, if somewhat misleading statements intended to reassure the inexperienced dancer that, unlike the nonswimmer asked to leap into the deep end of the pool, you have nothing to worry about when you and your partner step out onto the ballroom floor: You can do it.

While obviously less reassuring, it would be more accurate to say that if you can dance, you can walk, and if you’re dancing, the music tells you not so much what to do as when, how fast, and for how long to do it. As for what “it” is, someone has to teach you what the requisite moves are and how to fit them to the music, whether by example (showing you) or instruction (telling you). In other words, you have to be taught how to dance in a way that you don’t have to be taught how to walk.

Well, actually, you do have to be taught how to do certain kinds of walking, again, either by example or instruction: It takes more than the normal development of human motor functionality to make a tight-rope artist, a cat-walk model, or a log-roller, or to enable you to saunter, skip, or “walk like a girl” (cf. French se déhancher) in accord with local cultural norms. Indeed, even so rudimentary an act of bipedal locomotion as crossing the street can involve a set of instructions. (A friend recounted that on the first day she was allowed to go to school by herself, she knew that she was supposed to do something when she got to the corner but, having forgotten what it was, she made the sign of the cross before proceeding to the other side of the street.) Such instructions may include graphics and, in some cases, auditory cues. The plain crosswalk (known in Great Britain as a zebra crossing) is a simple visual instruction, namely: Cross here.

zebra crossing

zebra crossing

Complicated traffic patterns and other pedestrian safety considerations may occasion more elaborate instructions:

three crossing signals
Exhibit A presents official written instructions and an unofficial floral warning of the possible consequences of ignoring those instructions, never mind the parental injunction to look both ways before crossing the street. Pressing the button activates a beeping signal that takes effect when traffic has (at least in theory) stopped and it should be safe to cross. Exhibit B offers extensive written instructions, complete with graphics and accompanying sound effects—when you push the button, a synthetic voice says “Wait!” and, when the walking-person icon is displayed, a rapid ticking is broadcast, lasting until the “time remaining” numbers replace the icon. Two clues to the mystery of Exhibit C are (1) the lower button conforms to the standard distance-from-ground specifications of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) ( and (2) pressing the upper button does not activate any noise-making mechanism (whereas pressing the lower button does).

While government-sponsored formal instructions such as these for traversing a street on foot are historically relatively recent, those for dancing go back at least to the late 1500s, where “dance” referred specifically to European courtly dance. Bloch and von Wartburg tell us in their Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française that the verb danser—whence English dance—comes originally from the north of France and referred to “elegant dance, of good society [belle société],” while terms descended from the Late Latin verb ballāre—whence ballet and Spanish bailar ‘to dance’—referred to “more popular forms of dance.” Noting that danser is etymologically of Germanic origin, Bloch and Wartburg remark that terms referring to dance are often borrowed from other languages because dance is strongly subject to fashion, to which the Larousse étymologique adds that with dances of the descendents of the Roman Empire [dances romaines] having been proscribed by the Christian Church, dance must have been reintroduced by Germanic people.

One of the earliest how-to manuals of courtly dance instruction is Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchésographie (, first published (posthumously) in 1589 and which the preface to its 1948 English translation aptly characterizes as “…deal[ing] with what we should call today the ballroom dances of the period, considered by Arbeau and his pupil, Capriol, to be an essential part of the education of every well-bred young man.” (Thoinot Arbeau is actually an anagram of the author’s real name, Jehan Tabourot, a member of the clergy in the north-eastern French commune of Langres, who seems to have written the Orchésographie essentially for his own amusement, never seeking to have it published.)

The book is a dialog between Capriol and his teacher, Arbeau. Capriol has come to the realization that in order to be successful in affairs of the heart, he needs to learn how to dance, and Arbeau tells him he has come to the right place, elaborating that learning to dance is a good way for prospective mates to check each other out: “for these dances are practiced to reveal if lovers are healthy and their limbs are fully functional [dispos], at the end of which they can kiss their lady loves [maistresses], so that they can smell each other and be smelled, to see if they have bad breath or if they smell bad, like a shoulder of mutton: so, besides whatever other of the many pleasurable aspects [commoditez] arising from dance, it turns out to be necessary for well ordering of society.”

Arbeau goes on to distinguish between two forms of dance: dance guerrière and dance recréative, the former being what today would be called in French exercice militaire and, in English, close-order drill. Arbeau’s discussion of dance guerrière is chiefly concerned with rhythm and the musicality involved in marching—apparently, military music had yet to be thought of as an oxymoron. The modern-day analog would be an approach to teaching the “Virginia Reel” that proceeded from an exploration of jody calls (in which a marching cadence is supplied vocally, as, e.g., I hád a wífe and I léft hér/léft [´] léft [´], the canonical example being the call-and-response “Duckworth Chant”

Once Capriol has a firm grasp on the notion of left and right and how to match the corresponding feet with a metrical beat, Arbeau moves on to describe how to perform several kinds of courtly dance, describing the dancer’s positions and moves, sometimes with accompanying graphics
and sometimes with the instructions aligned with the music:
Finally, mindful that a new dancer will inevitably have a hard time remembering even the simplest dance routine, Arbeau provides rudimentary shorthand “memoranda” [memoires des mouvementz] for dances (or parts thereof) consisting of the initial letters of the names of the steps/figures as needed. It was not until a century later as the inventory of court dances had grown and become more elaborate that more detailed methods of dance notation began to appear. One of these—Beauchamp-Feuillet notation—will be the subject of our next viabrevis posting, “Best Foot Forward.”

out goes y-o-u
“Children playing out-door games such as “Hide and Seek” and “I Spy,” in which one of their number has to take an undesirable part, adopt a method of determining who shall bear the burden which involves the principle of casting lots, but differs in manner of execution. It is usually conducted as follows:–A leader, generally self-appointed, having secured the attention of the boys and girls about to join in the proposed game, arranges them in a row, or in a circle around him, as fancy may dictate. He (or she) then repeats a peculiar doggerel, sometimes with a rapidity which can only be acquired by great familiarity and a dexterous tongue, and pointing with the hand or forefinger to each child in succession, not forgetting himself (or herself), allots to each one word of the mysterious formula:–

One-ery, two-ery, ickery, Ann,
Fillicy, fallacy, Nicholas, John,
Queever, quaver, English, knaver,
Stinckelum, stanckelum, Jericho, buck.

This example contains sixteen words; if there is a greater number of children, a longer verse is used, but generally the number of words is greater than the number of children, so that the leader begins the round of the group a second time, and mayhap a third time, giving each child one word of the doggerel. Having completed the verse or sentence, the child on whom the last word falls is said to be “out,” and steps aside. In repeating the above doggerel the accent falls on the first syllable of each polysyllabic word; a very common ending is:–

One, two, three,
Out goes she! (or he),

and the last word is generally said with great emphasis, or shouted.” [Henry Carrington Bolton, The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children: Their Antiquity, Origin, and Wide Distribution (1888).]
Sound familiar? Probably not the particular “mysterious formula” quoted by Mr. Bolton, but the ritual of counting out and many of its performative characteristics are surely familiar to anybody who wasn’t raised by wolves as an only child in the wilderness:

  • The group of participants is ordered, that is, somebody is first, somebody else second, and so on to the nth participant—and the number of people to be counted out is agreed on (typically, everybody but a lone survivor, though not always).
  • The vehicle for the counting out is a short metrical, stress-based, spoken text, which may contain apparent nonsense words reminiscent of the “magic” words of an incantation and whose practical function is to act as phonetic filler in support of the requirements of the meter. In some cases, what is now nonsense may have started out as congruent speech that has lost its meaning through a combination of misperception and semantic bleaching (as with the formation of mondegreens like “Round John Virgin” or the distortions of the children’s game of telephone). As for the meter, Andy Arleo plausibly offers in his “Counting-Out and the Search for Universals” (Journal of American Folklore, vol. 110 [1997]) “two possible versions of a hypothesis of metrical symmetry for children’s rhymes: Children’s rhymes tend towards symmetry, defined as follows: (1) The number of beats in a given metrical unit (hemistich, line, stanza) tends to be even. (2) The number of beats in a given metrical unit tends to be a power of two.”
  • The text is repeated until the desired number of participants has been counted out, each time starting with the person next to the one just eliminated.
  • That the elimination of participants is determined by chance is typically an innocent fiction (since, if the counting-out text is invariant, determining who gets counted out is a simple matter of modulo arithmetic).

Whether or not it’s desirable to be the survivor(s) of the counting out process depends on circumstances. Claude Gaspard Bachet in his Problèmes plaisants et délectables [(5th ed., 1884)] gives two classic examples of what Elliott Oring refers to (in his “On the Tradition and Mathematics of Counting Out” [Western Folklore, vol. 56 no 2 (1997)]) as “the survivalist approach to counting-out:” the Josephus problem, and the problem of the fifteen Christians and fifteen Turks. In his third-person account of the war against the Roman emperor Vespasian, De Bello Judaico [], the general Josephus recounts having to hide with forty of his companions in a cave. As their rations grew short, it was decided that they would kill each other down to the last man. In Josephus’s telling, who got to be killed was determined by lot, a process that he survived either “whether we must say that it happened so by chance, or whether by the providence of God.” Bachet’s spin on the story involved the thought experiment of counting out the 41 people in the cave by threes until everybody except the lucky person #31 is dead. (The student is left to work out the math by him- or herself.) The other problem involves fifteen Christians and fifteen Turks on a boat that will sink unless half of the thirty jump over board. Bachet works through the problem by hand and then provides a mnemonic for the order in which the Christians and Turks have to be arranged in order to have just the Turks, counting out by nines, wind up being “it:” Assigning the vowels a, e, i, o, and u the values 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, the vowels in the following somewhat literary couplet tell you how to arrange the players, starting with the Christians:

Mort, tu ne falliras pas
En me livrant le trépas!

[Death, you won’t fail
to spare my demise.]

or, CCCC TTTTT CC T CCC T C TT CC TTT C TT CC T. How you’re supposed to get the Christians and Turks to line up according to what you’ve calculated to be the order in which the former will be spared and the latter consigned to the sea and certain death is not clear.

In real life (as opposed to a thought experiment), it takes a pretty manipulative counter-outer and a group of pretty naïve kids to get everybody into the right order so that a fix will work while the appearance of fairness—chance—is maintained. Failing that, the counter-outer has a number of strategies to adjust the outcome of the counting out. Besides the fairly lame strategy of the counter-outer’s skipping himself (or herself) in one or more rounds, the text itself may offer some leeway, as when there is additional text that may be added to the canonical rhyme to alter the outcome of the count. For example,
here’s the canonical form of a comptine (counting-out rhyme) popular in Québec:

Un, deux, trois, quat’
Ma p’tit’ vache a mal aux pattes.
Tirons-la par la queue,
Elle deviendra mieux.

[One, two, three, four
My little cow’s feet ache.
Pull her by the tail,
She’ll get better.]

to which may be added dans un jour ou deux [‘in a day or two’] to which may additionally be appended bleu, blanc, rouge! [‘blue, white, red’] if so desired. Whether the counter-outer can get away with adding one or both of these tags inconsistently, i.e., only where necessary to assure a given outcome, is not clear. One suspects that the allowable tags to the Anglophonic classic—Eeny, meeny, miny, mo—provide somewhat more flexability:

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,
Catch a tiger by the toe;
If he hollers, let him go:
Out goes Y-O-U.

where the final line may be replaced by a repetition of the first (“Eeny, meeny, miny, mo”) followed by additional text, possibly extemporized, beginning with the conventional “My mother told me to…,” (e.g., “Mý móther tóld mé tó chóose thé véry bést óne, ánd yóu áre nót ít”), delivered with the proper word stress and concomitant finger pointing. If the tag is sufficiently discursive, variation on the next round will probably go unnoticed.

Companies that produce documentation intended for the public typically have a “house style” defined by a set of “dos and don’ts” that writers are expected to follow in the performance of their craft. In the United States, company policy may prescribe one or another of the standard manuals of style such as The Chicago Manual of Style for questions of grammar and punctuation, a reasonably exhaustive “general usage” dictionary (e.g., The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language) for spelling and usage, and perhaps a technical reference appropriate to the company’s business (say, Barron’s Dictionary of Banking Terms). These in turn may be supplemented by a style sheet (or “guide”) covering the company’s particular requirements vis-à-vis the style and content of their published work.

Company-specific style sheets can run the gamut from the highly specific—as “three-way (adjective; no hyphen as noun, e.g., ‘We had a threeway’)” in the Penthouse Letters Style Sheet cited in “Questions of Style,” a comparative sampling of style sheets from The Washington Post and Penthouse magazine that appeared in the April, 1985, issue of Harper’s magazine—to the sufficiently vague as to be of little or no use, e.g., “Use your common sense,” which may get you a pass if your guide is Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio (“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [i.e., hard core pornography]…But I know it when I see it…”) or not, if it’s Québec’s Registraire des entreprises and you want to register your company under the name Wellarc, which is deemed to transgress the province’s language laws by sounding “too English.” (See for the ruling in Jacobellis v. Ohio and and for two views of the Wellarc case.)

Somewhere between Penthouse and the halls of government lie the majority of in-house style guides. Companies that provide documentation for products that, if they malfunctioned or you misused them, could cause you serious grief or harm typically have a set of guidelines for giving the customer written fair warning. For example, the Federal Trade Commission requires manufacturers and importers of clothing to attach “care” labels with washing or dry cleaning instructions so that the customer won’t innocently damage the goods, and each manufacturer or importer follows in-house wording appropriate to the garment. Software companies, though not subject to quite the same legal requirements as the garment industry, nevertheless typically maintain a list of terms denoting different degrees of severity of warning—Note, Attention, Caution, Warning, Danger, or the like—that writers are supposed to employ when describing possible traps for heffalumps that the user might encounter in running the product. Because the traps vary and writers may need to use their imaginations in anticipating them, the items on the list are often accompanied in the style guide by an example or examples of use, e.g., (from the Microsoft Style Guide [3d edition, 2004]):

A caution is a type of note that advises users that failure to take or avoid a specified action could result in loss of data.
Caution To avoid damaging files, always shut down your computer before you turn it off.”

In both of these cases, in-house style conventions exist to guide the writer in conveying cautionary information directly to the end user. In the textbook publishing industry, in-house style guides have an added wrinkle to the extent that they acknowledge two rather different audiences, namely: the person or persons responsible for adopting a textbook for use in school, and the student—the actual intended end user. (Publishers of children’s picture books are faced with a similar audience challenge: The Spiffiest ABC Book Ever has to appeal not only to the kid to whom it will be read but to the hapless adult who will be tasked with reading said book to said kid, possibly over and over until they both drop.) So, if the textbook publisher’s style guide contains any cautions, these will be addressed to the writer, not to facilitate communication with the end user but rather with an eye to minimizing the chances of losing a make-or-break statewide adoption by offending the wrong people.

The following is an actual style sheet handed out to writers for a major textbook publisher in the 1980s (and judging from recent reportage [], still alive in spirit if not in its specifics):

The following is a list of red flags that you should avoid in your writing for the grammar/composition series. Some of them are/should be self-evident. Others are the product of a varied and competitive marketplace. Offending any one interest or pressure group can be lethal. Often people will find objectionable material even if it isn’t intended to be objectionable. If anything can be misconstrued, it will be misconstrued, even if your intentions are honorable.

  1. Avoid any use of direct sexist references: waitress, Jewess, stewardess, Negress. Woman [sic] should not always be cooking, or cleaning, or tending house/children. Women should not be portrayed as physically weaker than men. There should be equal numbers of women and men in examples and exercises. Paragraph and sentence models should be equally male-and-female-oriented.
  2. Avoid using man and mankind to refer to the human species, and avoid using professional models that do likewise.
  3. Avoid reference to specific deities, esp. pagan deities. Do not use God as an interjection. Try to avoid references to religious holidays (the best holidays to refer to are national: 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Patriot’s Day, etc.)
  4. Avoid references to junk foods. The following are considered junk foods: sugar, candy, coke and other soft drinks, french fries, hamburgers, hot dogs, potato chips, ice cream, birthday cakes, chocolate and similar flavorings, etc.
  5. Vocational references that may be seen as demeaning or facetious: undertakers, gravediggers, garbage men, etc.
  6. Avoid the use of potentially offensive terms: slop, paddy wagon, gangster, Mafia, lady, witch, etc.
  7. Avoid the inclusion of bloodshed or overt violence of any kind. (On the other hand, don’t mention gun control or disarmament either.)
  8. Be careful with mythological references, references to evolution, references to the U.N. and the unity of the human species, references to mysticism, E.S.P., poltergeists, U.F.O.’s, ghosts, and the like.
  9. Avoid double entendre words and phrases: words from the drug culture (fix, trip, score, bust, etc.), and sexual double entendre.

On the inclusion side, you might try to inject some of the following into your text—
–references (cities, rivers, buildings, provinces, activities) associated with Canada (where we sell a lot of books);
–references to senior citizens (as vital, active, and attractive persons);
–references to handicapped persons (also as vital, active, and attractive).”

This posting was to have been about style sheets, and its opening sentence was to have been the following:

Companies that produce documentation intended for the public typically have a “house style” defined by a set of “dos and don’ts” that writers are expected to follow in the performance of their craft.

The question of whether the text from “Companies” to “craft.” here should have been enclosed in (double) quotation marks with “house style” and “dos and don’ts” changed accordingly to ‘house style’ and ‘dos and don’ts’ is a rabbit hole we will deftly sidestep lest we encounter the Bunny of Self-Referential Embedding in its lair. (What was that masked first sentence anyway?) Like the centipede rendered immobile when asked how it knows in what order to lower and raise its feet, I balked at the spelling of “dos and don’ts.” Is “dos and don’ts” a “do” or a “don’t?” How about “do’s and don’ts?” Or “does” (like “tomatoes”)? “Don’t’s?” If you look at any one of the possibilities long enough, it will look wrong (especially when it’s enclosed in quotation marks, most especially in single quotation marks, as in: “This style sheet seems to consist of fewer ‘do’s’ than ‘don’t’s.’”)

So, leery of the nonjudgmental Internet’s inevitable cornucopia of choices and not having immediate recourse to Mom, who anyway would have told me to look it up myself, I first checked a couple of dictionaries (The American Heritage Dictionary [fifth ed., 2011] and (OK, I did visit the Internet) and then went on to consult the somewhat older hardbound Gang of Three—Prentice-Hall’s Words into Type [third ed., 1974], the United States Government Printing Office’s Style Manual [1984], and The Chicago Manual of Style [15th ed., 2003]—hoping for an authoritative last word.

The AHD and Merriam-Webster are pretty much in agreement about the plural of the noun(s) do. Here’s what the AHD has to say:


Compare Merriam-Webster’s “A command or entreaty to do something <a list of dos and don’ts>.” The dawdler, distracted by do2 and do3, might wonder whether the first measure of “Yankee Doodle” should be two dos followed by a re followed by a mi, or should that be two does? (Both dictionaries are mute on the subject. So, incidentally, is the OED, which doesn’t give a preferred plural form for any of its do entries, though it does offer adoes and ados as alternative plurals for ado.) And, while we’re at it, since the –do of hairdo is pretty transparently a combining form of do1, why shouldn’t hairdo’s be OK?

Never mind: On to the Gang of Three. First stop: Prentice-Hall’s Words into Type, which is at best equivocal.

Letters, figures, characters, signs. The plural of a letter, figure, character, or sign is expressed by adding to it an apostrophe and s.

Exceptions: In stock and bond quotations, Govt. 4s, Bergen 8s, Treas. 3¾s.

In expressions like “twos and threes,” “pros and cons,” “ins and outs,” “yeas and nays,” a regularly formed plural is used.
That is, the plural of a word referred to as a word, without regard to its meaning, is indicated by apostrophe and s.
I used too many and’s.

Not sure we want to go there (possibly in violation of one of the Don’ts for Library Users). Finally, while Words into Type does have a separate section treating the formation of words ending in o, it serves, if anything, to further muddy the water by implying that “does” might be the expected plural form of “do” (or “do’s” expected plural): “No rule without exceptions can be given for the formation of the plural of nouns ending in o preceded by a consonant. The more familiar words add es to the singular, generally speaking, while words rather recently borrowed from other languages usually add s only.” It is presumably this rule of thumb that makes “noes” the plural of “no.”

United States Government Printing Office’s Style Manual confronts the issue straight on:
“The plural of spelled-out numbers, of words referred to as words, and of words already containing an apostrophe is formed by adding s or es; but ’s is added to indicate the plural of words used as words if the omission of the apostrophe would cause difficulty in reading:
Well, are “do’s and don’ts” words referring to words, or, as Words into Type seems to imply, something else (say, actions)? The Chicago Manual of Style finesses the issue:

Noun coinages. Words and hyphenated phrases that are not nouns but are used as nouns form the plural by adding s or es. To avoid an awkward appearance, an adjustment in spelling (or sometimes an apostrophe) may be needed.


So, as far as the do’s vs. the dos are concerned, it looks as though the maybe’s have it.

It is probably safe to say that, as national competitions go, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has rarely if ever enjoyed the same volume of media coverage as the Super Bowl or the World Series. Not, that is, until 2013 when the winning word turned out to be the center of a perfect storm formed by the conjunction of two richly resonant sociolinguistic issues, namely:

  • the relation of orthography to spoken language—what sorts of compromises and pitfalls are involved in standardizing an orthography?
  • how languages deal with borrowings from other languages—when does a word from another language get its green card and eventual citizenship? how are accommodations made when the phonological system of the borrowing (target) and borrowed-from (source) languages differ? How (when this is an issue) does the source language’s orthographic system map to that of the target language—how does transliteration work?

The word at the center of the storm was knaidel, which the competition’s official authority of record, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, defines as follows: “knai•del \kə′nādəl, ′knā-\ n. pl. knai•dlach \-dlək [Yiddish kneydel, fr. MHG knödel —more at knödel]: Dumpling 1a.” (Asked to use the word in a sentence, the Spelling Bee’s pronouncer offered, “Max hoped to find at least one more knaidel in his soup bowl but all he discovered was his missing lower denture,” eschewing the arguably more plausible “Another knaidel in your soup you want? A zets you’ll get!” a zets [זעץ] being, as golden-age Mad Magazine aficionados will doubtless recall, ‘a whack’—typically occurring in the onomatopoetic trio slep! smesh! zetz!) So, nu?

Characterized in The Atlantic Wire as a “kerfuffle” [which Webster’s defines as ‘a disturbance, fuss’ and derives from “alteration of carfuffle, from Scots car- (probably from Scottish Gaelic cearr wrong, awkward) + fuffle to become disheveled,” and not as one might have guessed from Yiddish, in which the appropriate term would instead be tzimmes—צימעס—literally, “a sweetened combination of vegetables (as carrots and potatoes) or of meat and vegetables often with dried fruits (as prunes) that is stewed or baked in a casserole”], many people objected to the spelling of the word, arguing for one or another of the likely alternatives—kneydel, kneidel, kneydl, kneidl, knaydel, knaydl—on the grounds that knaidel was neither a better a stab at rendering the phonetic entity [′kneidəl] than any of the other possibilities nor was it in conformity with the YIVO conventions governing the romanization of Yiddish script, which dictate that קנײדל (kuf+nun+tsvey yudn+daled+lamed) should be rendered  k+n+ey+d+l. (The orthographic conventions promulgated byYIVO—the Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut
[ײִדישער װיסנשאַפּטלעכער אינסטיטוט] ‘Yiddish Scientific Institute’ founded in 1925 in Poland and established in the United States in 1940 where it is known in English as the Institute for Jewish Research—are generally considered to be the standard for Yiddish spelling and romanization these days, having largely supplanted the one promulgated by Alexander Harkavy at the end of the 19th century in which, among other differences from YIVO, both ei and ai are used to transliterate the tsvey-yudn [ײ], which is used to represent both the diphthongs [ei] and [ai], a distinction that YIVO represents orthographically as ײ  vs. ײַ.)

But before considering these two objections, we should mention two others:

  1. Who ever heard of eating just one knaidel? In other words, aren’t we dealing with a word that almost always appears in the plural whether in Yiddish or English? Well, no. You can eat just one (in either language) at the possible risk of offending the cook.
  2. And, speaking of the plural of knaidel (קנײדלעך, which Webster’s gives as knaidlach), are knaidel and knaidlach really legitimate English words, exhibiting as they do certain phonetic and morphological features not found in “standard” English? As a word-initial consonant cluster, [kn] is pretty unusual except, perhaps, in a few borrowings from Yiddish and German; -ach as a plural marker for nouns in English is confined to Yiddish borrowings (cf. rugelach and kreplach) and is phonetically problematic as well. Well, the phonetics can be fudged; and as far as morphology is concerned, there aren’t that many nouns in English whose plural is marked by -en either (women, children, oxen, and a few others), so we might wave them through along with biscotti and graffiti. Besides, if the words are in the dictionary, they must be OK.

So, back to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (as distinct from what lexicographer Rosamond Moon has referred to as “the UAD: the Unidentified Authorizing Dictionary,” i.e., an imagined dictionary consisting of words as we think they should be defined and spelled). Since Webster’s is the official dictionary of  the Scripps National Spelling Bee, its spellings are the competition’s be-all and end-all, like it or not. Interestingly, if you run Google’s Ngrams application ( on the main contenders for alternative spellings for knaidel to see which if any have been attested in any of the zillions of scanned books that the program looks at, here’s what you get:

Alternative Spellings of "knaidel"

Alternative Spellings of “knaidel”

OK, the corpus is books rather than all written documents, but the results are nevertheless pretty compelling in favor of knaidel (though a comparable look at the plural form’s variants is also revealing):

Alternative Spellings of "knaidlach"

Alternative Spellings of “knaidlach”

So, what about the argument that the spelling should be kneydl (or kneydel) because that’s how you’d transliterate the word from Yiddish script to roman according to YIVO conventions? The simplest answer is that the contestant was being asked how to spell [′kneidəl], not how to transliterate its Yiddish spelling. (Had the contestant responded,  
“[′kneidəl]: kuf+nun+tsvey yudn+daled+lamed,” I personally would have given him a pass, one weisenheimer/wisenheimer to another.) A somewhat less simple answer might be, as a friend put it, “Who says Yiddish is always spelled the same?” In other words, who says that קנײדל is the only possible acceptable Yiddish spelling of the word in question (and therefore the only possible basis for the romanization knaidel)? Harkavy’s A Dictionary of the Yiddish Language, after all, spells it קנײדעל with a ע. A stretch, perhaps, but then as Andrew Jackson is said to have said, “It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.”


lunar ellipse

Lunar Ellipse