Monday, February 12, 2007

The Punctuation Round-Up, Part Three

In retrospect, this little series should probably be called “The Punctuation Etymology Round-Up,” but there’s something to be said for tradition.

[ Ask a Simple Question ]

I’m completely boggled by the idea of writing in English without the punctuation marks that we’re accustomed to using. The question mark, for example, is one of those squiggles that makes written language understandable. It’s funny how we don’t think twice how a little loopy fragment has come to be so widely understood as the written form of a raise in intonation at the end of a sentence, but the question mark is one of the few bits of punctuation that can convey meaning independently of words. Think about it: A cartoon character who has a question mark suddenly appear over his head is immediately understood to be confused, or at least inquisitive.

A little research shows that it’s not such a foreign concept. By far, the most commonly believed origin for the question mark is the Latin word quaesto, meaning “question.” Various sources cite that the word — sometimes abbreviated “Qo,” sometimes with the “Q” being placed above the “o” — was used as a suffix after interrogative questions. The Q-o stack was eventually stylized — or slurred, if you will — into what we call the question mark.

If you compare the two images, you can kind of see it, especially if you picture the tail of the “Q” being bent down into the bottom leg of the question mark’s top half. Well, that plus the bottom-left quarter of the “Q” vanishing. I like this theory of the question mark simply meaning “question,” since it would seem to make sense, providing the assertion is true. But thought most people think this is probably how this particular punctuation came about, a lot of people also say that no one knows for sure. This is especially odd, since the question mark is fairly new, as far as punctuation marks go.

Various other theories include that the question mark arose from a tilted, tilde-like squiggle coming out from a dot that Eats, Shoots & Leaves author Lynne Truss credits to Alcuin of York. Another recent book, Why Cats Paint, alleges that the mark was originated by Egyptians, who modeled it after a sitting cat, viewed from the back. In this theory, the dot is the cat’s anus. I have to assume that this theory is bunkum since Why Cats Paint is essentially a humor book, but the Wikipedia article on the question marks notes it nonetheless. (I’d guess that this inclusion speaks less to the cat’s anus theory and more to the fact that the Wikipedia is often written by idiots.)
[ An Excited, Erect Point ]
The theories about where the question mark came from may abound, but people seem far more certain about the exclamation point. The only theory I could find online about where we got the stick-with-the-ball-underneath or “yelling mark” posits that it came from the Latin io, meaning “joy.” I’m not sure if it was tacked onto the end of sentences the same way quaesto was, though frankly the idea of people shouting “joy” for no reason after sentences is pretty funny. (“Marcus, there’s an angry gladiator behind you. Joy.”) A slightly different explanation for the symbol has it coming from the “I” in io being placed above a full stop, though I’m not sure the Romans even used full stops.

All I really found of interest about the exclamation mark aside from its origin is the sheer number of alternate names for the symbol, depending on whether it’s being used grammatically, mathematically, in typesetting jargon or in some form of computer science. Wikipedia lists “screamer,” “bang,” “gasper,” “startler” and “dog’s cock,” the last being a fitting, if improbable, complement to the “cat’s anus” explanation for the question mark.
[ The Chandler Mark ]
The exclamation mark has a slight edge over the question mark in terms of versatility. The Wikipedia article notes that British writing sometimes employs an exclamation point inside parentheses to imply sarcasm. I’d represent this with an example enclosed in parentheses here, but it’s next to impossible to properly do that, since it would make it look like I was showing an exclamation point inside two pair of parentheses. I suppose I could set it off by itself, though.

Like that. There, I think that worked.

During a previous Etymology Round-Up, Bri pointed out that the French sometimes use the similar irony mark, or point d’ironie.

It’s just what it sounds like, and as a result I can see why it’s never caught on. Irony, when written well, doesn’t need to be specified as irony. The example the Wikipedia gives is “If love is blind, why is lingerie so popular?” (Just mentally flip the end punctuation in that quote around for the full effect.)

While this punctuation bit has never been formally adopted by typesetters, it looks exactly like a backwards question mark used in Arabic. The blog Ultrasparky notes that it might be really bad form, however, to employ Arabic punctuation to signify the occasion in which someone is expressing the opposite of what they mean, though he admits that such a punctuation could help those on message boards and chat rooms understand when people are speaking facetiously.
[ Short and Simple ]
The proper name for the paragraph mark — that backwards "P" or retarded pi sign, depending on how you look at it — is the pilcrow.

That's all I can give on the subject today. For those that made it this far, feel free to look at the original Etymology Round-Up — in which I talk about the long-lost letter thorn, the ampersand and the interrobang — or the second one — in which I talk at great length about the weird history of the dollar sign.


  1. Methinks you give me too much credit on this one as the point d'ironie is news to me.
    Then again, it may very well have been one of my other, more punctuationally-minded personalities.

  2. I was thinking moreso that the exclamation point within parentheses looks remarkably like a stylized version of female genitalia.

    This would be fitting, because in most cases (one hopes) where we are privy to the aforementioned parts, excitement is always close at hand.