Sh@dy Charac†ers

Sh@dy Charac†ers: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks
by Ke!th H*uston

Ignoring its lack of a serial comma, the subtitle says it all: This is a fun book that works chapter by chapter through roughly a dozen punctuation marks and symbols used in written communication, with countless others discussed along the way.

Starting with the evolution of the pilcrow (❡), Houston guides us through innovations in formatting and punctuation developed for increased written clarity. Discussions on the interrobang (‽), octothorpe (#), ampersand (&), @ symbol, asterisk (*), dagger (†), hyphen (-), dash (—), manicule (☞), and “quotation marks” form the skeleton of the book, which is fleshed out with the development of formatting concepts such as paragraphs, chapters, and footnotes, plus many additional marks and symbols. A chapter on indicators for irony and sarcasm closes the book. Along the way, this jam-packed book delves the broad field of the written word, from ancient Greece’s UNBROKENSTREAMOFLETTERS to the @ symbol’s path to ARPANET stardom.

The innovation of punctuation itself is attributed to the fourth librarian of the great library at Alexandria, Aristophenes. But editorial marks began with the first librarian at Alexandria, Zenodotus of Ephesus, appointed in the third century BC by Alexandrian king Ptolemy II and assigned the task of revising Homer’s epic poetry, which was bloated with spurious text. Zenodotus chose to mark rather than remove, drawing a straight line (—) in the margin alongside each superfluous line. This obelos (“roasting spit”) was the first editing mark, said to be like an arrow slaying the superfluous and piercing the false.

This pioneering editing by Zenodotus was expanded on by later Alexandrian scholars, including the librarian who followed Aristophanes, Aristarchus of Samothrace, who added his own marginal marks: the diple (>) and the astriskos (“little stars,” *).

The Aristarchean symbols—asterisk, obelus, and diple—are carried into Christianity for reconciling the Hebrew Old Testament. They played a role in the birth of the Reformation and are used to indicate pause length in the musical recital of psalms.

From these rarefied uses, we skim to the home run asterisks of Roger Maris and Barry Bonds and to the portrayal of George W. Bush as an asterisk.

Nowadays, asterisks most often refer to footnotes and Houston discusses the most famous footnote of all. Between 1820 and 1840, Reverend John Hodgson published his magnum opus, a six-volume History of Northumberland. It is the third volume that is renowned for its 165-page footnote describing the history of Roman walls in Britain. Sadly, this most famous of footnotes was not called out by an asterisk, but rather introduced by the letter u. It contains an abundance of child notes labeled a to z three times over and containing their own child notes.

Houston shows the dash transcending punctuation with its use in profanity. If you wish to d— someone to h— without offending the reading public, then you’d be d—d before you’d write the word damned itself. This use of the dash became so commonplace that the word dash became a mild epithet in its own right.

The discussion of Gutenberg’s moveable type and his hyphenation practices evolve into the search for automated composition that includes Linotype’s automated justification via wedge-shaped spacebands. From chiseled inscriptions in ancient Greece to Internet email and hash tags, the symbols of typography weave a fascinating trail in Keith Houston’s Shady Characters.

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