The Magazine

Period Piece

The theory and meaning of our own hieroglyphics.

Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By BRIAN P. KELLY
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If, as Kurt Vonnegut believed, the only reason to use a semicolon is to show that you’ve been to college, what does it say when someone uses a pilcrow? Or, for that matter, an interrobang, a manicule, or an octothorpe? While this book doesn’t make any judgments about the punctuation one chooses to use or avoid, Shady Characters takes an entertaining look at the evolution of both common and lesser-known characters.

Interrobang T-shirt

Interrobang T-shirt

Unsurprisingly, the roots of modern punctuation have their origins in ancient Greece. Ancient Greek texts were meant to be spoken aloud, and were written in scriptio continua: all capitals, no typographic marks, and no spaces. Where punctuation now acts, in one regard, as signposts to aid readers in their task, in ancient Greece, readers were on their own when it came to discerning where sentences, clauses, even some words began and ended. It’s easy to see how ITCOULDBEHARDTOUNDERSTAND scriptio continua, and so, in the third century b.c., Aristophanes of Byzantium, head of the Library of Alexandria, devised the first system of punctuation in order to make reading easier. He created a series of three dots, or distinctiones, to indicate places within a text at which a reader should pause and how long that pause should last. These marks were the komma (·), the kolon (.), and the periodos (·), indicating a short pause, medium pause, and long pause, respectively.  

Oddly enough for a culture in which texts were meant to be read out loud—and that didn’t seem preoccupied with formatting for clarity—the paragraph predates Aristophanes’ distinctiones by a full century. The first paragraphs were marked with a small line in the margin of the text where new sections or key ideas began. These marginalia also gave paragraphs their name—para- “beside,” and graphein “write.” While the Romans threw out Aristophanes’ system and returned to scriptio continua by the end of the second century, the paragraph endured as an important part of the written word, albeit in myriad incarnations. Some writers outdented the first words of a paragraph; others enlarged its initial letters, creating literae notabiliores (notable letters); still others inserted the letter “K” at the beginning of paragraphs, short for kaput, or “head.”

As time passed, various punctuations came into and out of existence, thanks largely to the standardization that early Christians demanded in reproducing and circulating Scripture. Aristophanes’ dots were revived and modified; the positura (a mark resembling the Arabic numeral 7) indicated the end of a section of text; questions terminated in a punctus interroatvus (?); the diple (‹) marked quotations from scripture and eventually evolved into quotation marks (“ ”) and guillemets (« »). The paragraph became standardized and the “K” of kaput was replaced by the “C” of capitulum, or “little head”—a style that would last until a technological revolution shook the typographic world.

Before the printing press, extant texts were almost universally religious in nature and painstakingly copied by monks from earlier versions. Due to the tedious nature of producing texts before Gutenberg, each stage of production was assigned to a different individual, beginning with a parchmenter who prepared animal hides, followed by a scribe who copied the text, and ending with a rubricator who would ornament it. Scribes often left ample room at the beginning of paragraphs for decoration, and it became common practice for rubricators to embellish the “C”s that populated texts with a vertical line. Hence, the pilcrow was born: ¶.

Later, even after the advent of the printing press, the beginnings of sections were still adorned by hand. Printers, like the scribes of preceding generations, would simply leave a blank space at the start of paragraphs while setting the type, then pass the manuscripts along for decoration. But the number of texts skyrocketed, and rubricators were unable to keep up with demand. In lieu of ornamental pilcrows marking the beginning of sections, these blank spaces became the norm, and are still with us today in the standard indentation that marks the start of every paragraph.

While the story of paragraphic punctuation stretches almost two millennia, not all typographic marks took as long to come to prominence. Indeed, as printing and communication technologies improved, marks could rise to ubiquity in the blink of an eye—and disappear just as fast. One such example is the interrobang (?!)—a mark used to indicate surprise or punctuate a rhetorical question. In a 1962 issue of Type Talks, a trade publication dedicated to typography in advertising, ad executive Martin K. Speckter wrote an article entitled “Making a New Point, or How About That .  .  .” In it, he explains his frustration with the growing number of rhetorical questions in advertising—Can you believe the price?!—and their clumsy punctuation. His solution was a new punctuation mark, the “exclamaquest” or “interrobang.” The article included examples of what this new mark might look like, the most popular of which turned out to be a question mark overset with an exclamation point.

People loved it. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Herald Tribune ran pieces in support of the mark; American Type Founders created a font called Americana that featured it. Remington Rand made an interrobang key for one of its typewriters. But like many fads, the interrobang craze was short-lived. This was partly due to stubbornness: Many literary types just didn’t like the symbol, and most foundries chose not to cut interrobangs when creating new typefaces. But technological shortcomings also played a role. Monotype and Linotype machines (the most common ones used in printing at the time) could support only a finite number of characters, and more traditional, if rarely used, marks—such as the ligatured a-e (æ) and the dagger (†)—took priority over the newcomer. By the early 1970s, the interrobang had disappeared.

If popularizing a punctuation mark is difficult, the task seems to be at least marginally easier if the symbol has historical roots. Unlike the interrobang, whose conception, creation, rise, and fall were all observable within a decade, the @ symbol has been around for centuries and is now enjoying widespread resurgence thanks to the Internet. While its exact origins are unknown, the earliest recorded use of the @ symbol is in a letter sent from Seville to Rome, dated May 4, 1536. In it, a Florentine merchant named Francesco Lapi discusses ships arriving in Spain from the New World and the price at which they sold one amphora of wine. An amphora was a standard Roman commercial measure (equivalent to about 26 liters) and seems to have set the precedent for the symbol’s use: From all other extant records, “@” has related the quantity of a product sold @ a certain price. 

As to the distinctive look of the symbol—Italians call it the “snail,” Germans the “spider monkey,” Danes the “elephant’s trunk A”—the most likely origin is sloppy handwriting. Abbreviations, common for most of writing’s history thanks to the time and paper they saved, were indicated by adding a small bar, called a tittle, over the letter. The shortened amphora became “¯a,” and as scribes rushed to take notes, they combined the character into one stroke, joining the tittle with the a and forming the original @. 

The @ symbol would have remained strictly in the commercial realm had it not been for Ray Tomlinson, who, in 1971, was employed to write programs for the newly created ARPANET (precursor to the modern Internet). Modifying a primitive form of electronic mail—messages could only be sent and read from the same computer—Tomlinson devised a way to transmit messages written on one computer and store them for retrieval on another. In choosing how to address these messages, he decided to append the host with the recipient’s name, selecting the “at” sign to do so: recipient@host. It was originally a pet project, and Tomlinson worried that his superiors would be angry if they found out he had created email—since it wasn’t, in his words, “what we’re supposed to be working on.” His fears were unfounded: By 1973, email accounted for 75 percent of ARPANET’s traffic. And so “@” began to be associated with everything digital. Thanks to “Internet c@fés,” Twitter handles, and email, the @ symbol, unlike the interrobang, can look forward to a long life.

Brian P. Kelly is associate editor of The New Criterion