A reading from “The Book of Bojangles”: Yea, though I drive through the interstate of the valley of fried chicken, I fear no evil. And yet, verily, my soul is filled with confusion. Is it Bojangle’s, Bojangles’ or Bojangles?
On our drive, we noticed that signs for the restaurant were all over the place, apostrophe-wise. Some signs had the apostrophe before that final S. Some had it after the S. Some had no apostrophe and on some the apostrophe seemed to float above the S, like the tongue of flame you see on a Renaissance painting of an apostle being visited by the Holy Spirit.
“Well, it has evolved over many years,” Jackie Woodward, chief marketing officer at Bojangles, told me in an interview.
You will notice I didn’t use an apostrophe just there. That’s because on Aug. 3, 2020, the company dropped a bombshell: It was nixing the apostrophe, going from Bojangles’ to Bojangles. This was the latest incarnation of a chain that started 46 years ago as Bojangle’s Fried Chicken.
Which makes you wonder: Is it a restaurant created — even if fictitiously — by a person named Bojangle or a person named Bojangles? And where does the name come from anyway?
“The story goes that Jack Fulk and Richard Thomas were putting together a new restaurant concept and hadn’t picked a name,” Woodward said. “Jack was driving along the highway and heard that song.”
That song was “Mr. Bojangles,” written by Jerry Jeff Walker, a 1970 hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a favorite of Sammy Davis Jr.’s. The song is not about tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949), but about a dancing drunk Walker met in a New Orleans jail cell who offered that nickname as a pseudonym.
“Bojangles the restaurant has no affiliation with the song,” said Woodward. The founders just liked the sound of the word.
Over time, the apostrophe migrated, modifying a lengthened name: Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ’n Biscuits. (Don’t get me started on the ’n.)
With me so far? As my family drove on I-95, one of our number wondered if maybe it should be Bojangles’s.
And actually, it should be, at least if it was up to The Washington Post. On the subject of possessive apostrophes, our stylebook stipulates: “Use ’s to form the possessive of singular nouns, proper names and nicknames ending in a sounded s: Lucas’s new movie, the boss’s secretary …”
It clarifies: “But use the apostrophe alone for Jesus’ and for ancient and biblical proper names of more than one syllable ending in -es: Demosthenes’ orations, Xerxes’ conquests, Jesus’ birth.”
And it includes another example of where The Post would use ’s: “Gonzales’s nomination.”
As good as their biscuits may be, Bojangles is not biblical. By The Post’s style, it should be Bojangles’s.
I consulted Vessela Valiavitcharska, director of the Writing Center at the University of Maryland and a scholar of rhetoric, grammar and logic in Byzantium and the Slavic world.
“In written English, especially when it’s a name that ends in s and it’s a polysyllabic name, you could add the apostrophe s, if you are really a stickler for the rules,” she said. “Or you could omit the second s if you feel like it’s redundant.”
But styles vary. And college students, she said, have to know which style they’re meant to be using when writing their papers: Chicago, say, or MLA.
Of course, writing is one thing. Saying is another.
“There are two different things: decisions about spelling and decisions about pronunciation,” said Linda Coleman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Maryland.
“I would anticipate that regardless of whether an apostrophe is there or not, people would not pronounce the extra syllable,” Coleman said. “People make a decision based on what is not going to sound silly.”
And “Bojangles’s” just sounds silly.
Still, I think it’s fun to say, whether it’s possessive or plural: Bojangleses. (In the case of more than one, The Post’s copy editors would opt for “Bojangles restaurants.”)
Woodward, the Bojangles marketing chief, said the company is still in the process of replacing all the old signs with apostrophe-free versions. And the version of the sign that had the apostrophe above the S? It may have looked that way, but it was supposed to be after the S, she said.
“What makes my job so much fun is that people do care about whether Bojangles has an apostrophe or not,” said Woodward. “It shows the passion that our customers have for our food.”
And today’s column has shown the passion I have for the weirder corners of the English language. Now, have you heard how the people who make those little orange square crackers are adamant that more than one Cheez-It is not a bunch of Cheez-Its but a collection of Cheez-It crackers?