Shady characters

Wednesday is Rambler5319’s day so here’s his latest offering. Enjoy!

No, not those rather dubious folks who you imagine are trying to get money out of you with some dodgy scheme. These are characters, some of which appear in print, some of which do not and some of which did but don’t any more.

I expect, like me, that among your Christmas presents you may have received a book: perhaps a novel, perhaps a text book for a course you’re on, perhaps a reference book, perhaps an atlas – road,  world, historical or whatever. Books are nice presents especially if the giver has written something inside especially for you.

I like my Kindle but nothing beats a real paper paged book. It’s an experience turning a real page not an electronic one; and of course you can flick through the pages which you can’t do with a Kindle. If you want to search for something you read in a book but have forgotten where it was then you can’t beat the Kindle for speed. It also can’t lose a bookmark which can drop out when you move a book about; it will always remember where you’re up to and synchronise with other devices like your phone. If I’m reading a book on the Kindle and then open up the same book on my phone it knows immediately where I got to on the Kindle and I can start reading from there with the phone. It’s brilliant.

Anyway back to my present. It was from a good friend and someone who knows my sometimes quirky tastes in books on the English language and its own often quirky rules of spelling & grammar. This one is on an area I hadn’t really given much thought to: the history of, and sometimes the disappearance of, punctuation marks. I mean I know that we’ve got the full stop, the comma, quotation marks, question mark, exclamation mark, colon, semi-colon, dash, hyphen & the & sign – all the regular ones we use. What I hadn’t really given much thought to was how these came about and what about ones that used to be used but either aren’t any more or only very rarely: the pilcrow, octothorpe, dagger & manicule. There are also some which have been proposed but never got accepted into general use – the interrobang for instance and its many different designs. What’s an interrobang I hear you say? You’ll have to wait till later! (There is a clue in the last two sentences.)

Remember way back in history when you see pictures of those stone inscriptions, often in Latin or Greek in books, how they were always in capital letters AND there weren’t even spaces between the words; and some languages didn’t have vowels (e.g. Hebrew). Furthermore the writing ran left to right on the first line and right to left on the second repeating this alternate pattern all the way down the page. Check this out:



(I can’t believe how many times whilst just typing those lines above that I did actually press the space bar and have to go back and delete it!!)

It probably didn’t strike you, as it didn’t me, to think of how exactly, over a long period of time, it was decided to keep the same direction (and some languages decided to go right to left all the time) and then that spaces should be introduced; and then punctuation marks; and then how did lower case letters arrive on the scene when they didn’t exist before. There was a time when there were none and then there was a time when these enhancements were all there. The development, sometimes over hundreds of years, is not something I’d really thought about.

As I sat down with Keith Houston’s book which he’s called Shady Characters I was wondering whether he would get me interested in what might, on the surface, appear a rather dry subject. Firstly the cover itself is unusual in that the lettering of the words is debossed. What’s debossed you might be thinking? You are probably familiar with books which have lettering which is raised up from the surface of the cover – this is called “embossed”. When the lettering is sunk into the surface it’s called “debossed”. actually cites this exact use in the example it gives – The design on the book’s cover is debossed. I reckon this is the first book I’ve had which has been done like this. But could KH’s text get me interested? I needn’t have worried. Right from the off when he started with the Pilcrow mark (¶) I wanted to know more. That’s because probably, like me, at some point you’ve pressed keys and suddenly found lots of these things appearing on the page when typing in an earlier version of Microsoft Word; and you also found it was so frustrating trying to get rid of them. I certainly did. Today we know the symbol as a paragraph mark. If you’ve never seen them just open one of your own Word documents. (Btw I’m using Word 2007.) Click on the Office button in the top left of your screen and look at the bottom right corner of the box which opens up, right next to the “Exit Word” button is <Word Options>. Click on that and then on <Display>; in the second block of options you will see “Paragraph Marks” and by ticking the box and coming out of it you will see lots of these little “pilcrows” through your document. They mark your paragraphs.

Remember the question about the interrobang? Here’s what Microsoft’s symbol library has for it – _ Now I don’t know what will happen when LLM transfers this to WordPress so let me just give you a brief description. Imagine a normal question mark where the vertical stem continues upwards into the area of the curved part at the top and in some cases crosses the curved line. That vertical bit with the dot at the bottom is actually an exclamation mark and of course you can still see the question mark. The interrobang combines a question and an exclamation. Why would you need that? Well imagine a situation where somebody is asking a question but with extra emphasis: a group of people are preparing and cooking a meal for some friends and one of them finds that the meat is not cooked properly – “Who forgot to set the temperature on the oven” Does it need a question mark – yes; does it need an exclamation mark – yes as the person speaking is clearly annoyed and possibly knows whose fault it is. “What would you use?” or maybe “WHAT WOULD YOU USE!” Or even “What would you use?!”

That’s why in 1962 Martin K. Speckter came up with the idea of combining the two marks. That way if you were reading the sentence you would know to raise your voice but also by infection make it obvious it’s also a question. So hey presto! This combined question & exclamation in one. You can see that the “interro” bit of the name comes from the longer word interrogative meaning a question; the bang bit apparently comes from a slang English word for an exclamation. Now my dictionary doesn’t have this meaning but I do know the expression “to bang on about” something which means you are trying to emphasise it by repeating it so there’s a connection. And so the name “interrobang” which also strays into the area of portmanteau words – (remember Can I have a word from 27.6.12?)

Now Microsoft have a few versions of the interrobang and here they are, slightly enlarged, so you can see the design a bit better  ]^_`.(If these symbols don’t come out on transfer to WordPress then, in Microsoft Word, just click on <Insert> and on the very top right click on <Symbol> then <More Symbols>; set the font in the drop down to <Wingdings 2> and you should see 3 of the marks in the bottom right of the first screen of symbols. I prefer the one where the vertical bar doesn’t go all the way up and through the curved bit so here are a couple of examples from Google images:

For whatever reason the mark hasn’t caught on although you’d think it was very usable.

There are a number of products which you can buy: T-shirts, mugs, cuff links, pendants, even an i-phone 5 case with the symbol on, etc which all perpetuate the mark. If you’re really interested check out this site:

The world of the interrobang can seem a little strange.

Well that’s my first look into the world of punctuation marks. We’ll look at a few more next week.

If you want the full story then get Keith Houston’s book. He gives the history, development and up to date situation of the various marks. I found it a fascinating insight into these often ignored tools of punctuation. They’re just there and we don’t tend to think much about them but this book certainly makes you give them a second look.

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] myself for moving to England and being an eccentric American lady detective with my UK partner Lazy Laura Maisey.  In preparation I am watching BBC programming and ending sentences with “quite”.  I […]


  2. […] Characters you might want to have a quick read so you know where the title comes from. (Check out Shady Characters […]


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