A Matter of Interpretation

A French gentleman made a will in which, among other bequests, he left handsome sums of money to his two nephews, Charles and Henri. The sums were equal in amount. When the testator died and the will came to be proved, the nephews expected to receive two hundred thousand francs each as their specific bequests. But the executors disputed this, and said that each legacy was for one hundred thousand francs.

The legatees pointed to the word deux.

‘No,’ said the executors, ‘there is a comma or apostrophe between the d and the e, making it d’eux.’

‘Not so,’ rejoined Charles and Henri; ‘that is only a little blot of ink, having nothing to do with the actual writing.’

Let us put the two interpretations in juxtaposition:

À chacun deux cent milles francs.
À chacun d’eux cent milles francs.

The first form means, ‘To each two hundred thousand francs,’ whereas the other has the very different meaning, ‘To each of them a hundred thousand francs.’ This little mark (‘) made all the difference.

The paper had been folded before the ink was dry. A few spots of ink had been transposed from one side of the fold to the other, and the question was whether the apparent or supposed apostrophe was one such spot.

The legatees had very strong reasons–two hundred thousand strong–for wishing that the little spot of ink should be proved merely a blot; but their opponents had equally strong reasons for wishing that the blot should be accepted as an apostrophe, an intended and component element in the writing.

The decision was in favor of the legatees, but was only reached after long and expensive litigation.

— William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892