Daily Features

Character Study: The Curious History of Punctuation

New book traces the secret life of everyday punctuation, glyphs, and symbols

By Anne Quito, Superscript November 12, 2013

‽#¶&☞‡—@* ;-) Relax. Your screen is not playing tricks on you. These symbols are among the typographical marks that Keith Houston explores in his new book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols and Other Typographical Marks (W.W. Norton). A software designer by day, Houston devoted five years researching and writing about these curious marks after encountering the pilcrow (¶) peppered throughout Eric Gill's influential book, An Essay on Typography. “For all its ubiquity, the pilcrow gets short shrift in books. It's a crying shame," writes Houston. His quest to uncover the provenance of these typographical marks led him to a whole spectrum of sources—from Greek manuscripts to Bell Laboratories, to the widow of Martin K. Specter, the inventor of the interrobang (‽), a kind of typographic portmanteau between the exclamation point and question mark, used to convey equal parts excitement and disbelief.

© W.W. Norton

The Book

Shady Characters Keith Houston

Who knew that Twitter staples like the octothorpe—or as the masses have come to call it, the hashtag (#)—originated from ancient Rome or that the @ symbol owes its fame to a computer engineer working on the government-sponsored ARPANET project in 1971. Houston also vivifies stories of defunct symbols now relegated to the status of graphic dingbats. The manicule (☞), for example, an anthropomorphic character depicting a disembodied hand with a pointed index finger, was in common use for at least five centuries. It was used to alert the reader about ideas of note on the margins of manuscripts before the invention of the Post-It tab.

© W.W. Norton

But Shady Characters is not just about old-school glyphs. The book’s last chapter follows the quest for symbols to denote irony and sarcasm in writing—from the point d’ironie (⸮), which resembles an inverted question mark, to the etiology of the emoticon. Also included here, Houston tackles the amusing debate on how to appropriately convey digital sarcasm via smileys :-) and winky faces ;-).

Houston’s book itself inspires a smile in the mind. It is written with the sparkling voice of an intrepid enthusiast, replete with interesting footnotes and sources of further reading. More than an archive for irresistible party trivia, the well-illustrated volume deepens the reader’s understanding of the evolving history of language and writing. The U.S. edition of Shady Characters was published in September, appropriately on National Punctuation Day.

© W.W. Norton
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