The special tool we use here at The New Yorker for punching out the two dots that we then center carefully over the second vowel in such words as “naïve” and “Laocoön” will be getting a workout this year, as the Democrats coöperate to reëlect the President.
Those two dots, often mistaken for an umlaut, are actually a diaeresis (pronounced “die heiresses”; it’s from the Greek for “divide”). The difference is that an umlaut is a German thing that alters the pronunciation of a vowel (Brünnhilde), and often changes the meaning of a word: schon (adv.), already; schön (adj.), beautiful. In the case of a diphthong, the umlaut goes over the first vowel. And it is crucial. A diaeresis goes over the second vowel and indicates that it forms a separate syllable. Most of the English-speaking world finds the diaeresis inessential. Even Fowler, of Fowler’s “Modern English Usage,” says that the diaeresis “is in English an obsolescent symbol.”
It’s actually a lot of trouble, these days, to get the diaeresis to stick over the vowels. The autocorrect on my word-processing program (I was just kidding about the hole punch) automatically whisks it off, and I have to go back, highlight the letter, hold down the option key while pressing the “u,” and then retype the appropriate letter. The question is: Why bother? I am not getting paid by the hour.
The fact is that, absent the two dots, most people would not trip over the “coop” in “cooperate” or the “reel” in “reelect” (though they might pronounce the “zoo” in “zoological,” a potential application of the diaeresis that we get no credit for resisting). And yet we use the diaeresis for the same reason that we use the hyphen: to keep the cow out of co-workers.
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Basically, we have three options for these kinds of words: “cooperate,” “co-operate,” and “coöperate.” Back when the magazine was just getting started, someone decided that the first misread and the second was ridiculous, and adopted the diaeresis as the most elegant solution with the broadest application. The diaeresis is the single thing that readers of the letter-writing variety complain about most.
We do change our style from time to time. My predecessor (and the former keeper of the comma shaker) told me that she used to pester the style editor, Hobie Weekes, who had been at the magazine since 1928, to get rid of the diaeresis. She found it fussy. She said that once, in the elevator, he told her he was on the verge of changing that style and would be sending out a memo soon. And then he died.
This was in 1978. No one has had the nerve to raise the subject since.