TILL HUMAN VOICES WAKE US

“Hey it was nice to meet u guys!! What fun!! ’Til next time!!”

For now, we’ll disregard the trifold exclamatory hoopla (and redoubled punctuation!!) of the above-quoted text message, which I can only hope exhausted its sender as thoroughly as it did me. What caught my attention, amid that mounting fatigue, was the word ’til. ‘Til is what James Murray would have called a “back-formation.” Murray coined the term under emergency circumstances, weeding through thousands of false etymologies as he compiled his Oxford English Dictionary, the most radical reference work in the history of Western Civilization.

And it’s exactly the kind of orthographic folklore promoted by — often invented by — my second-grade teacher, Miss Knickersoff. Her real patronymic, by the way, was Nickerson. It was my lascivious, serial-flirting dad who called her “Miss Knickersoff.” (This was several decades before political correctness would bring most earthly delights, not all of them malicious, to a screeching halt.)

Version 2

We agreed that she was very, very hot — a smoldering, buttoned-up beauty. I privately theorized that like princesses and angels — but unlike mere workaday mortals — Miss Knickersoff would never have needed to visit a bathroom. (My efforts one afternoon to visualize such an event yielded only further proof of her supernatural innocence: so taut was the fabric of her prim wool skirt, stretched like a drum-skin from one butt cheek to the other, that no intra-gluteal crack could be detected: the very anatomy seemed to disobey mechanical law.) Perhaps as a concession to this woman’s unwavering purity, I ignored her many bizarre ideas about our language and its literature. “Poetry,” she once declared, “is when you indent every other line by one thumb’s width.” That kind of stuff sticks in your mind, like treacle. Or epoxy.

Version 2

I have a hunch that my correspondent — the guy who sent the text — may once have studied under a similar free-thinking autodidact. I can almost hear the hectoring lesson: “Now children, till — spelled T-I-L-L — is incorrect. Use either until or ’til, which, as the apostrophe indicates, is a contraction of until.” Or maybe this teacher had pronounced, with equal if more creative fantasy, “Till and until are formal. ’Til is informal and therefore shows feeling.” (To show feeling was generally preferable to showing thinking.)

Version 3

How about we put the controversy to rest forever? Both till and until have been established in English since at least the early 14th Century, when English was still Middle English. The elision ’til started to appear only quite recently. (And elision is the term we’d use, not contraction, since it doesn’t “contract” two words into a single unit but instead lops off a syllable from one word.) In fact the OED‘s earliest citation seems to be 1939, roughly concurrent with the invasion of Poland by a maniac well known for — among other things far deadlier — some fairly quack policies for revisionist spelling.

Not that its newness makes ’til wrong. That too would smack of folklore.


All screenshot citations are from the online version of Oxford English Dictionary


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