Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The Punctuation Round-Up

I hate History 4A. I hate studying. I hate finals.

As a result of these three hatreds converging on one night — my last before I'm done with this shitbag quarter — I have spent the last hour procrastinating. Instead of the boring stuff I hate, I read all about boring stuff I like. For your edification, I've collected this knowledge here. Now learn something.

[ Ye Olde Missing Letter ]

Among many other things, a subject that came up during a talk I had with New Megan was the letter Thorn. The way Megan told it, Thorn is the name of a symbol for the th sound — either way you can pronounce it, whether voiced like in "the" or voiceless like in "thick." Though we still use the sounds — lispers more than others — we don't have the symbol, which in its day looks kind of like this: Þ

It's a vertical line with a loop coming out of the right side, just lower than it would on a P. Neat, huh? The interesting part about all this is that a certain influential printer named William Caxton decided to substitute Y for Þ, for reasons I will surely never understand. Because of that, it was standard practice to use Y to make the th noises for a while. This has all but disappeared except on quaint, folky-like store signs, like "Ye Olde Whorehouse" and stuff like that. People mistakenly pronounce "Ye" like yee when it's actually just a fucked-up way to spell "the."

Neat, huh?
[ And, Per Se ]

As near as anyone can tell, the ampersand was born around 63 B.C. when a scribe named Marcus Tullius Tiro created the first system shorthand we can find record of. As a speaker of Latin, Marcus' word for "and" was "et." Whether he joined the two letters together or whether that was already standard practice among writers at the time, we're not sure, but the oldest form of the ampersand is a fancy way of writing "et."

If you look in this picture below, you can easily make out the individual E and T in the classical ampersand on the right. The more modern, more familiar one on the left, however, has changed quite a bit.

The name of the letter comes from a recitation of the phrase "et, per se and," a mishmash of Latin and English that basically translates to "et, which by itself means and." For a while, the ampersand was treated like a quasi-letter and stuck onto the end of alphabets. People slurred "et, per se and" into "ampersand." (And there's a phony etymology for the name of the symbol which traces it back to the phrase "emperor's hand," but don't believe it. Believe me instead.)

And I know inventing shorthand is technically a big accomplishment, but I'm way more impressed that Marcus Tullius Tiro has gone down in history as the inventor of the ampersand.
[ The Tragically Short Life of the Interrobang ]
Apparently having decided that English punctuation didn't pack enough punch, New York ad exec Martin Specktor introduced a new end punctuation — the interrobang — to the printed word in 1962.

This mark, which looks like a malformed P with a dot under it, is actually an exclamation point and question mark combined — hence the name. "Interrobang," by the way beat out other suggestions for the name like "rhet," "exclarotive," and my favorite, "exclamoquest."

Specktor even concocted a name for the upside-down interrobang that would rightly precede a Spanish sentence expressing both surprise and interrogation: the gnaborretni, which is "interrobang" backwards.

The interrobang fared better than you might think. Supposedly, it showed up in some magazine articles and print advertisements. Remington brand typewriters even included an interrobang key for a few years. As you probably could guess, however, the mark ultimately faded into obscurity. Today, the standard practice for punctuated a surprised question is to use ?! or !?. There's no rule saying which order you have to use, but it's generally not considered a trait of formal writing.

And I'm totally not shitting you. This has to be the only instance of fad punctuation I've ever heard of.

I just like that the first sentence I can think of that would actually make good use of the the interrobang is "What the fuck?!" And that is exactly what people should have said when someone tried to explain the interrobang.


  1. i had the !?/?! dillema today. i had an aninterrobangillema.

  2. tittle-

    A small diacritic mark, such as an accent, vowel mark, or dot over an i.