Punctuate Me!

To see how easy it is to put on one’s cultural blinkers and be unable to imagine other ways of living, one need only look at typography. How words are produced (writing, printing, typing), the various fonts they appear in, and the symbols that tie them together are things we take for granted. If you’d like to be disabused of this notion, have a look at Keith Houston’s blog Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation.

At first I would just tell you about because it is an extreme case of wonderful geekery, but the more I read the more I realized how much rich cultural tradition is hidden beneath each familiar symbol. I am just going to cover some points of some symbols he discusses in more detail.

Consider the ampersand. The & symbol started out as graffiti in Pompeii sometime around 79 AD. Shorthand for the Latin et, meaning and, in high brow circles was a different symbol: ‘⁊’. The ‘Tironian et’, named after Tiro, Cicero’s scribe and secretary, still exists in Irish Gaelic, but has been replaced everywhere else by ‘&’. But between its invention and us today, the ampersand took some deviations.


But if the symbol’s origins are ancient, its name is much more recent. According to Houston, it was included as the twenty-seventh symbol on tablets for children learning the English alphabet. Kids would recite the alphabet and when they got to the end they would say X, Y, Z, and per se AND. (Per se means by itself, distinguishing the symbol from the rest.) From and-per-se-and we derive ampersand.



Unlike the ampersand, we don’t know where the name octothorpe comes from. Other names for the symbol are ‘hash’, ‘pound’, ‘number sign’. We do know that the symbol derives from the Latin term libra pundo, meaning a pound on the scales, or a pound. English kept the second part of the phrase as the word that denotes weight, but gets its unit symbol from the first part of it. Hence 5lbs, lb being short for libra. The symbol ‘#’ also comes from that shorthand ‘lb’ since writing it quickly would result in the two upright lines being crossed twice to complete the letters.

Since then, the octothorope’s uses have been as varied as the theories of the word itself. Named for James Edward Oglethorpe; named to designate a village, where eight fields (octo in Greek) surround a central square (thorpe is a village in old English); named by Bell Telephone Lab engineers to confound foreign speakers who could not pronounce the diphthong ‘th’ in it; named after the outer eight points (for the octo part) and Jim Thorpe, an early Olympic gold medalist…Take your pick, nobody knows.



My favorite is the pilcrow. Says Houston “This is a pilcrow: ¶.” It’s that symbol that denotes the beginning of a paragraph. The pilcrow’s story itself is rather simple. The word is derived from the Greek word paragraphos (becoming pelagraphe, pylcrafte, and eventually pilcrow). But the symbol, although it looks like a reversed P, comes from the letter c, for capitulum (the other name for the symbol today), or little head, as in a new heading.

However, that straightforward story hides a much richer history and more far reaching consequences. Houston goes back to Homeric times and what writing was like then, when there WERE ONLY CAPITAL LETTERS, ANDTHEYWEREWRITTENWITHOUTSPACESORPUNCTUATION. Yeah, that says ‘and they were written without spaces or punctuation’. (Moreover, the sentences went both from left to right and right to left in alternating lines.) It was when Greek became the Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean world and foreigners had to interpret Greek texts that Aristophanes of Byzantium, the librarian of Alexandria, introduced punctuation to make it easier to read the text.

Even with his invention of three different dots called komma, kolon, and periodos (!), the Romans did not take to punctuation. It took Christianity for punctuation to really proliferate. And even then, punctuation was not put in by the author, but rather by the reader or the teacher to indicate to the student where to pause, where to take a breath, where to stop. Christianity also introduced spaces between words and lower case lettering. The also introduced the letter K at the beginning of a text (for kaput, meaning head) and c at each paragraph, as I said, meaning capitulum, or small heading.

The K fell out of use, but the c grew in importance. So much so that when a text was written, the scribe would leave space at the beginning of each paragraph for a separate person to come in and paint, in red, an elaborate letter c. This morphed into ‘¶’. Even after Gutenberg invented the press, the ¶ had to be written in by hand, only now, because printing quickly became cheap and easy, the people who painted the capitulum couldn’t keep up with the amount of books. The space was simply left blank, leaving us with the habit of leaving an indentation at beginning of paragraphs.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: