Punctuated Equilibrium: Shady Characters

It’s true; you’re never alone on the Internet. And in a litblog paradise filled with word geeks and type geeks, there’s a certain sweet spot where etymology and typography intersect. There are those of us—you know who you are—who were disproportionately thrilled to find out that the hashtag, known in pre-Twitter days and by voice-mail prompts as the lowly pound sign, had an even earlier term donated by 196os telephone operators: the octothorp. I always thought an undue interest in punctuation was mostly the province of proofreaders, who spend so much time obsessing about it and then physically writing those elements by hand in countless margins. But they also hold a certain allure for readers, language learners, etymologists, translators. And anyone who has dabbled in HTML—or any other kind of coding—has more than a passing relationship with the odds and ends of punctuation removed from its literary context.

Now Keith Houston has started up a very handsome and lovingly researched blog, Shady Characters, on the history of punctuation. His first entry, on the dashing pilcrow, gets off to a great start. He begins with the basic dilemma of unpunctuated Greek text, written in a style called boustrophedon, which translates as “ox-turning”—like an ox plowing a field, the letters run right to left, then reverse direction and are read left to right. The first punctuation symbols, instituted by Aristophanes of Byzantium, librarian at Alexandria, were composed of a series of dots representing breathing pauses in spoken rhetoric. These were differentiated only by their position relative to the text’s baseline, and were attached to rhetorical units called komma, kolon and periodos—sound familiar?

The article is packed full but never dry, and Houston’s love for his wonderfully geeky subject is evident:

In the end, my notes on the pilcrow took in references to the birth of punctuation, the ancient Greeks, Charles the Great, medieval writing and England’s greatest 20th century typographer. I started to research other marks of punctuation—not only those, like the pilcrow, which hovered on the margins, but also everyday characters such as the ampersand (&) and the hash mark (#)—and what emerged was an ever more diverse set of episodes, actors and artefacts: the creation of the internet; ancient Roman graffiti; Venetian trading shorthand; Cold War double agents, and Madison Avenue at the peak of its powers. Their stories wove a fascinating trail across the parallel histories of language and typography.

I very much look forward to seeing where all this detective work takes him, and hope he gets enough good feedback on his launch to serve as a real ˆ on a stick.

(via Condalmo. Paragraphetzel photo by oskay, part of the Pilcrow Flickr photostream.)


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