RogerBW's Blog

Shady Characters, Keith Houston 05 October 2020

2013 non-fiction; Houston looks into the history and evolution of a variety of punctuation marks.

Which could be summarised in many cases as "first recorded by a librarian of Alexandria as part of the breaking-up of scriptio continua; expanded in usage by the monasteries; wrenched around by the advent of movable type; squashed into ASCII, or ignored; restored by Unicode". I wonder whether a more chronological treatment, with side notes on the individual marks under consideration, might have worked better; this mark-by-mark arrangement leads to quite a bit of repetition and back-reference. But of course the details are more interesting.

The pilcrow comes first, and its section therefore has to do much of the historical heavy lifting; it's really more about the development of the concept of the paragraph-level separation.

The interrobang is blatantly modern, having been invented by an advertising-man in 1962. (And un-forgotten largely because Houston found the inventor's widow; it seems frankly superfluous, if briefly amusing.)

The octothorpe can be traced fairly cleanly from librum to Bell Labs, though Houston doesn't notice that "#" for "lb" has fallen out of use outside North America (perhaps along with the lb itself, though I'm not sure it was ever common in the UK at least).

The ampersand deals also with the (more interesting) Tironian et (U+204A), still surviving in Irish Gaelic, and with the development of differing italic and roman lettering styles.

The @ symbol starts with Ray Tomlinson at BBN, then jumps back to see why that symbol was on his keyboard in the first place.

The asterisk and dagger also divagate into footnotes; incidentally, there are both chapter-end- and book-end-notes here, the former being interesting side points, the latter being actual references.

The hyphen and The dash (separate chapters) start to lose me: it feels like punctuation as gatekeeping, since if you use this almost-indistinguishable mark rather than that one you are branded as Not Properly Literate.

The manicule is the pointing finger, killed off when a book became a mass-produced item rather than something which an individual rich reader would have made to their own order and thus feel at liberty to annotate.

Quotation marks might have done better to examine why some people apparently feel that they should be used for emphasis; but mostly it's about how a special mark for the Word of God gradually became used for anyone's actual words.

Irony and sarcasm seems like the most pointless chapter: from the very first attempts, this has foundered on the impossibility of telling whether an irony-mark was itself being used ironically. Houston does do a good job of tracing the idea of a backward-slanting face for ironic usage back to Tom Driberg rather than the more partisan claims for Mencken or Levin.

It's a shame that the more "normal" marks are omitted from this review; perhaps Houston felt that Parkes' Pause and Effect had done the job already. This book is fun, but it feels in the end like a feast of trivia rather than a grand argument or progression; it's pop-typography, a subspecies of pop-history, rather than a serious examination.

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