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Shady characters: the secret life of punctuation, symbols & other typographical marks by Keith Houston

by Edward Caruso AE

In Shady characters, Keith Houston examines the relationship between language and typography, and illuminates how punctuation has become an important part of written expression.

The book is divided into 11 chapters. In them, Houston gives examples of how current writing practices go back to ancient times. One example is how the Romans separated words with dots, as we do in Microsoft Word when we activate the ¶ symbol in the Home menu ribbon. This symbol, known as the pilcrow and developed in ancient Rome, continued to be used in medieval manuscripts to mark chapters, paragraphs or sentences. Indented paragraphs would eventually usurp the pilcrow, but thanks to Eric Gill’s An essay on typography, published in 1931, this symbol has gradually made a comeback, more recently thanks to word processing.

One punctuation mark that hasn’t made it into use is the interrobang (‽, adopted by the NSW State Library for its logo, and created by advertiser Martin K Speckter in 1962 to symbolise surprise and doubt). Punctuation marks that have come and gone include the ‘commash’ (,—), ‘colash’ (:—) and ‘semi-colash’ (;—), and their reversed formats.

The manicule (☛, a hand pointing to text from manuscript margins for annotations) was common between the 12th and 18th centuries; nowadays, it is occasionally sighted as a direction symbol. Also, quotation marks, developed by Library of Alexandria scholars, have taken the form of diples. Among the many Houston cites, we find the following: <>, <<>>, double commas, ÷ and Ivor A Richards’ superscripts, of which he was the only user.

Shady characters also gives treatments of punctuation and typographical marks that have been with us for centuries. They include the octothorpe (#, historically related to the £ symbol), ampersand (&, which started life as the Roman word et), the @ shorthand notation for ‘at’ (its history is speculative, but it came to light in a letter written by Francesco Lapi in 1536, in which he used @ as an abbreviation for ‘amphora’), the asterisk and dagger (* and †, whose linked histories go back to the Library of Alexandria, where punctuation began in the third century BCE, thanks to Aristophanes of Byzantium), hyphens and dashes (the first hyphen appeared in Alexandria, documented by Dionysius Thrax in the second century BCE; and the dash appeared in the letters of Buoncompagno da Signa, born near Florence, in the late 1100s, as the short pause (virgila sursum erectaI: /) and long pause (virgula plana: –)).

Houston’s final chapter narrates the search for punctuation marks that signify irony and sarcasm. The first documented irony mark appears in John Wilkins’ Essay towards a real character and a philosophical language (1668). Recent possible symbols include Alcanter de Brahm’s point de ironie of 1899 (similar to an interrobang), Hervé Bazin’s 1966 version (one of a range of proposed punctuation marks), as well as the Ethiopian sarcasm mark (¡) of 1999, and the SarcMark of 2008, among many others.

Keith Houston’s Shady characters is a wonderful account of how language is enhanced by typography and punctuation, and how each continues to develop.

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