Listen to this article
Punctuation is not the sort of subject that readily gets the juices flowing, but for every staid comma or colon there’s a flamboyant asterisk or dagger itching for its time in the sun. Here are four scandalously overlooked typographic outliers.
Pilcrow (¶) The pilcrow, or paragraph mark, is a punctuational coelacanth. Its shape comes from ‘C’ for capitulum, the Latin for “chapter”, and it has been around in one form or another for over two millennia. Its most noteworthy appearance in modern times came in An Essay on Typography, Eric Gill’s 1931 classic work on type design, where it separates paragraphs in lieu of the more customary indentation.
Ampersand (&) As distinguished as the ampersand now appears (where would Moët & Chandon be without it?), it got off to a rocky start. The first recorded example, a crude amalgam of the letters ‘E’ and ‘t’, was scratched onto a Pompeian wall only to be smothered by Vesuvius’ ash. Not only that, but the ampersand arrived a century behind a dangerous rival: the “Tironian et” (⁊), designed by Cicero’s secretary Tiro, was already well known to Roman scribes. For centuries the two symbols fought it out on papyrus scrolls and parchment manuscripts, and though the ampersand was the eventual winner, the Tironian et soldiers on in Irish Gaelic.
At-symbol (@) The ‘@’ got its start as a shorthand for “amphora”, a unit of volume derived from the pottery jars in which goods were ferried across the ancient world. It might have stayed in merchants’ ledgers and on grocers’ chalkboards, too, were it not for the invention of electronic mail in the early 1970s. Casting about for a symbol to separate an addressee’s username from the computer to which a message was to be sent, a young engineer named Ray Tomlinson settled on one of the few symbols not already co-opted by the nascent internet: with one keystroke, the at-symbol’s fame was guaranteed.
Interrobang (‽) A combination of ‘?’ and ‘!’, intended to punctuate surprised or rhetorical questions, the interrobang was the brainchild of an ad man named Martin K. Speckter. Having invented the symbol in 1962, Speckter embarked on a spree of television and radio interviews to promote it, and when, in 1968, Remington Rand released interrobang add-on kits for their electric typewriters, its future must have seemed assured. Sadly, it was not to be. Though an interrobang can still be conjured up from your computer keyboard, the chances are it will attract a response best punctuated with Speckter’s symbol itself: “What on earth is that‽”
Keith Houston’s ‘Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks’ (Penguin) is out now