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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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