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Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Is it a Full Stop, or a Bloody Period?

Warning: This post may freak or gross you out a little. Don't read it if you're squeamish. You have been warned.

You know that little dot that marks the end of a sentence? What's it called?

From the moment I began to recognise symbols, and long before I could actually form them into pronounceable words in my brain, I was taught that it was called a "Full Stop" (Or, if you prefer, fullstop).

Of course, I now know that the Americans like to call it a period. I can't remember when exactly I learnt that, but I was quite old - it must have been around the time that I discovered that girls over a certain age bleed once a month. In fact, it was a little after that, come to think of it. This was most likely around age eleven or twelve.

I had also discovered that these girls had a name for the aforementioned time of the month: they called it their Period. Which, in hindsight, kind of makes sense - it's a particular period of time, when this magical thing happens.

The Literary Period


According to Wikipedia, a "Period" in the context of writing was originally different from the English "Fullstop", and the former was closer to the mark we use today to end sentences... although it was originally used more like a modern comma, whereas fullstops were marks in the vertical centre of a line (but these were used to delineate sentence endings).

It's all very confusing. Far more so, in fact, than I realised when I set out to write this article. I'm going to quote the relevent section from the Wikipedia article:

The name "period" is first attested (as the Latin loanword peridos) in Ælfric of Eynsham's Old English treatment on grammar. There, it is distinguished from the full stop (the distinctio) and continues the Greek "underdot"'s earlier function as a comma between phrases. It shifted its meaning to a dot marking a full stop in the works of the 16th-century grammarians. In 19th-century texts, both British English and American English were consistent in their usage of the terms "period" and "full stop". The word "period" was used as a name for what printers often called the "full point" or the punctuation mark that was a dot on the baseline and used in several situations. The phrase "full stop" was only used to refer to the punctuation mark when it was used to terminate a sentence. At some point during the 20th century, British usage diverged, adopting "full stop" as the more generic term, while American English continued to retain the traditional usage.

I have a headache.

Blood on a Page


Still, my initial association of a word "Period" with a female event was strong, and persists to this day. When my young mind had to come to terms with the new definition of the word, it gave me nightmares. 

I was also, at that age, familiar with the literary theme of people making pacts with the Devil, signing their souls away in exchange for some big favour in life, and being remorseful when it came time for the Devil to collect... but it was too late.

People in those stories always had to sign their names in blood - most often their own. That's what a period reminded me of.

As I grew older, and my mind began to associate everything with sex, the earlier remembrance of the world came screaming back. Not only did putting a period at the end of a sentence make me think of a contract with the Devil, it now also made me think of a woman (no longer a girl - I was now interested in women) standing over a page, and letting a drop of her blood....

Shudder. I'm not even going to finish that thought. It's pretty disgusting, isn't it?

Allow me to try and get that image out of your head, by sharing with you one of my favourite "Little Johnny" jokes:

The kindergarten class had a homework assignment to find out about something exciting and relate it to the class the next day. 
When the time came for the little kids to give their reports, the teacher was calling on them one at a time. 
She was reluctant to call upon little Johnny, knowing that he sometimes could be a bit crude. But eventually his turn came. 
Little Johnny walked up to the front of the class, and with a piece of chalk, made a small white dot on the blackboard, then sat back down. The teacher couldn't figure out what Johnny had in mind for his report on something exciting, so she asked him just what that was. 
"It's a period," reported Johnny. 
"Well I can see that," she said. "But what is so exciting about a period?" 
"Damned if I know," said Johnny, "but this morning my sister said she missed one. Then Daddy had a heart attack, Mummy fainted and the man next door shot himself."

Funny how these old associations with words are so strong.

Some time into my teenage years, I learnt that America had yet another meaning for the word....

The Sporting Period


I must admit, I'm not a sports fan, so I don't know much about this one. I think it's only applicable in Basketball, where games are split into quarters. Those quarters are called "Periods".

I don't hear that reference as often, and my association isn't as strong as it is with the literary type. I can't articulate what I think of when I hear references to a basketball "Period", except to say that it just sounds... wrong.

What's wrong with just calling it a quarter? 

Oh, that's something different, isn't it? Americans probably immediately think of money when they hear that word (I've blogged about that before).

Acceptable Periods


There are, of course, other kinds of "Periods" which are completely innocuous to me, and evoke no negative imagery in my mind. These are all periods in time: The Renaissance Period, the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, and so on. 

I guess it's because I was aware of these kinds of "Periods" long before I was aware of "that time of the month"... although the term "Period Drama" is still a bit iffy.

Also, school periods. Those are fine too.

As I said, it's pretty strange how early associations with particular concepts can stick with you for so long. Do you have any examples from your own personal experience, or is it just me? 

Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Oh, and P.S. if one of your thoughts while reading this article is "You never had sisters, did you?", then my answer is no. No, I did not. Is it that obvious? :-)

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