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This is Keith Houston’s blog about the unusual stories behind some well-known — and some rather more outlandish — marks of punctuation. Read a brief introduction, get started with the life and times of the , or pilcrow, or order the book. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Google+, get email alerts of new posts, or subscribe to RSS feeds for new posts and comments.

Miscellany № 60: the secret life of the tilde

I am guilty of having somewhat ignored the tilde, or ‘~’, here at Shady Characters. Having just read Joseph Bernstein’s excellent, recent BuzzFeed article on the subject of “The Hidden Language of the ~Tilde~”,[1] however, I thought I’d take a fresh look at this quirky sun-dried hyphen.

Joseph opens his article with a lament:

Last month in New York, Adam Sternbergh began his long cultural history of emojis[2] by contrasting Face With Tears of Joy, the world’s most popular emoji, with the tilde, the venerable squiggle that is surfed on QWERTY keyboards by the ESC key and in math means approximately. Sternbergh pointed to the fact that Face With Tears of Joy has grown more popular on Twitter than the tilde as sufficient reason to offer tongue-in-cheek, if not Hearts in Eyes, advice to the ancient symbol:

“The 3,000-year-old tilde might want to consider rebranding itself as Invisible Man With Twirled Mustache.”

Unsettled by Adam Sternbergh’s abrupt dismissal of the poor old tilde, Bernstein proceeds to make the case for the tilde’s continuing relevance in the digital world, explaining that the ~bracketing tilde~ “unquestionably does something to [words], something destabilizing and a little uncanny […] a good definition of the use of bracketing tildes might go no further than adds juju.” Rather than recapitulate Bernstein’s arguments here, I thought a little context might be in order. Because when Sternbergh offhandedly mentions that the tilde is 3,000 years old, he is not far wrong — it may not be quite so ancient as that, but this little twiddle is the scion of a very long-lived family of marks.

Like the versatile octothorpe (#) and @-symbol, the modern tilde has a variety of uses. In mathematics it can be placed before a number to mean “approximately” (“~50” means “about 50”), or inserted between two variables to mean “x is equivalent to y”; in Boolean logic it stands for negation, or “not”; in tweets and other online discourse, as Joseph Bernstein says, it adds a sort of sarcastic or ironic emphasis to words; and in the ubiquitous Unix-based operating systems on which the Web runs it is an alias for the home directory of the current user.

It is safe to say that its earliest adopters had none of these in mind.

One of the best clues to the origin of the tilde is to be found in the King James Bible, the “Authorised Version” that has lorded it over lesser translations of the Bible since the early part of the seventeenth century. In Matthew 5:18, as the King James version has it, Jesus says to his disciples:

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.[3]

The KJB was translated from a patchwork of Greek, Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic sources, with this particular line taken from the original Greek text of the New Testament. In the Greek, “jot and tittle” are rendered as iota and keraia respectively, where iota is the name of ‘ι’, the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet, and where keraia means a small hook, serif or diacritic mark used to modify written letters.[3] (The linguistically diverse sources for the KJB, however, do leave some wiggle room for interpretation. The small Hebrew letter yodh (י) provides a tantalising alternative to iota, and ancient Hebrew scribes were well aware of how a keraia could transform one letter into another — ‘ב’, or B, is distinguished from ‘כ’, or K, only by the subtlest stroke of the pen.[4])

But if iota (or yodh) is straightforwardly mapped onto “jot”, then what is a “tittle” and why was it chosen as the English counterpart for the Greek keraia? The Oxford English Dictionary explains that “tittle” comes from the Latin titulus, for “superscript” or “title”, and that it refers to a whole host of accents or other marks placed above letters or words to change their sound or meaning. A medieval a modified by an accent to form á, for example, became the long form of the vowel; an a drawn with a line above it (ā), on the other hand, represented an abbreviation beginning with a. And though we might more correctly call the acute accent (´) and macron (¯) by their formal names, they are both very much tittles — as are the dots at the top of is and js. As obscure as it is today, “tittle” is as accurate a translation for keraia as anything else; by talking of jots and tittles, the translators of the King James Bible let Jesus allude to the finer points of law by analogy with the smallest marks made by a scribe’s pen.[5]

You may have guessed where this is leading.

In the Latinate languages that preceded modern Spanish and Portuguese, a dash or ‘~’ placed above a vowel indicated the omission of a following n or m — a so-called nasal consonant — so that, for example, aurum, or gold, could be abbreviated to aurũ.[6] As medieval Latin evolved into the modern languages of the Iberian peninsula, these missing nasal consonants gave rise to the “mouillé” sound found in Spanish (in the word señor, for example) and the nasally-inflected ã and õ vowels found in Portuguese.[7] Thus the tilde was and is a tittle par excellence, a mark used to modify the sound or meaning of a letter. It was so exemplary of the form, in fact, that the word “tilde” itself arose from “tittle” sometime during the nineteenth century.[8] In word and deed, the tilde is a tittle, with roots that twine through classical Greek writing, Latin vocabulary and Iberian speech.

  • [1] J. Bernstein, “The Hidden Language Of The \~Tilde\~,” in BuzzFeed. 2015. <http://www.buzzfeed.com/josephbernstein/the-hidden-language-of-the-tilde#.jdvLxQ0XD> Bibtex

    @misc{Bernstein2015,
      author = {Bernstein, Joseph},
      booktitle = {BuzzFeed},
      month = jan, title = {{The Hidden Language Of The \~{}Tilde\~{}}},
      url = {http://www.buzzfeed.com/josephbernstein/the-hidden-language-of-the-tilde\#.jdvLxQ0XD},
      urldate = {2015-03-29},
      year = {2015}
    }
  • [2] A. Sternbergh, “Smile, You’re Speaking Emoji,” in New York. New York: 2014. <http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/11/emojis-rapid-evolution.html> Bibtex

    @misc{Sternbergh2014, address = {New York},
      author = {Sternbergh, Adam},
      booktitle = {New York},
      keywords = {digital culture,emoji,new york magazine,texting,unicode},
      month = nov, title = {{Smile, You're Speaking Emoji}},
      url = {http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/11/emojis-rapid-evolution.html},
      urldate = {2015-03-29},
      year = {2014}
    }
  • [3] “Greek Lexicon :: G2503 (KJV),” in Blue Letter Bible. 2015. <http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2503&t=KJV> Bibtex

    @misc{BLB2015, booktitle = {Blue Letter Bible},
      keywords = {Blue Letter Bible,Free Bible Software,Hebrew,`,all,equivalent,hence,iōta,letter,minutest,of,part,smallest,the,them,to},
      title = {{Greek Lexicon :: G2503 (KJV)}},
      url = {http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2503\&t=KJV},
      urldate = {2015-03-29},
      year = {2015}
    }
  • [4] D. F. N. Jones, Chronology of the Old Testament, New Leaf Publishing Group, 2005. <https://books.google.com/books?id=AvVPlyYjX7YC&pgis=1> Bibtex

    @book{Jones2005, abstract = {The Chronology of the Old Testamenthas one goal to accomplish: to demonstrate "that every chronological statement contained in the Sacred Writ is consistent with all other chronological statements contained therein." Author Floyd Nolen Jones carefully and thoroughly investigates that chronological and mathematical facts of the Old Testament, proving them to be accurate and reliable. This biblically sound, scholarly, and easy-to-understand book will enlighten and astound its readers with solutions and alternatives to many questions Bible scholars have had over the centuries. Features: Scriptural solutions to many biblical mathematical controversies Sir Robert Anderson's calculation error corrected The 483-year prophecy of Daniel 9:25 explained A scriptural formula which biblically synchronizes the kingdoms of Judah and Israel 48 charts, graphs, and diagrams included in text Fully indexed with complete bibliography Supports and updates James Ussher's Annals of the World With reliable explanatory text, detailed charts, and diagrams, this book provides a systematic framework of the chronology of the Bible from Genesis through the life of Christ. No Bible scholar should be without this indispensable reference tool.},
      author = {Jones, Dr. Floyd Nolen},
      isbn = {1614582106},
      pages = {300},
      publisher = {New Leaf Publishing Group},
      title = {{Chronology of the Old Testament}},
      url = {https://books.google.com/books?id=AvVPlyYjX7YC\&pgis=1},
      year = {2005}
    }
  • [5] “tittle,” in OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/202640> Bibtex

    @electronic{OED-TITTLE, address = {Oxford},
      booktitle = {OED Online},
      keywords = {octothorpe,shady\_characters},
      month = aug, publisher = {Oxford University Press},
      title = {tittle},
      url = {http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/202640},
      year = {2012}
    }
  • [6] R. Sampson, Nasal Vowel Evolution in Romance, Oxford University Press, 1999. <https://books.google.com/books?id=EVjCnKuW_l0C&pgis=1> Bibtex

    @book{Sampson1999, abstract = {This book provides a complete, comparative, nongallocentric account of nasality in all the Romance languages. It demonstrates the central role of nasality in the history of sound changes in the languages of southern Europe. In doing so, it assembles a large amount of important philological and linguistic data previously dispersed and difficult to access, and organizes it in a way that allows the author (and will allow the reader) to analyse it systematically. Two introductory chapters discuss general principles of nasality and Romance nasalization. Subsequent chapters are then devoted to each language. The author considers all the standard varieties and a substantial range of non-standard varieties, and identifies broad characteristics of vowel nasalization in Romance. In the the final chapter he makes a clear bridge between the data-rich discussion of individual languages and the isolation of language universals. This is will be the standard work in its field for many years. It will be of central interest to linguists and philologists of Romance, as well as to those concerned more generally to understand the causes, patterns, and processes of sound change.},
      author = {Sampson, Rodney},
      isbn = {0198238487},
      pages = {413},
      publisher = {Oxford University Press},
      title = {{Nasal Vowel Evolution in Romance}},
      url = {https://books.google.com/books?id=EVjCnKuW\_l0C\&pgis=1},
      year = {1999}
    }
  • [7] “tilde,” in OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/201971> Bibtex

    @electronic{OED-TILDE, address = {Oxford},
      booktitle = {OED Online},
      month = jun, publisher = {Oxford University Press},
      title = {tilde},
      url = {http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/201971},
      year = {2012}
    }
  • [8] “Tittle,tilde,” in Google Ngram Viewer. Google, Inc., 2015. <https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=tittle\%2Ctilde&year_start=1500&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3> Bibtex

    @misc{google2015tittle, booktitle = {Google Ngram Viewer},
      month = mar, publisher = {Google, Inc.},
      title = {tittle,tilde},
      type = {Electronic citation},
      url = {https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=tittle\%2Ctilde\&year\_start=1500\&year\_end=2000\&corpus=15\&smoothing=3},
      year = {2015}
    }

Miscellany № 59: the percent sign

Reproduced from David Eugene Smith's 1908 Rara Arithmetica, the penultimate line of this manuscript contains the abbreviation pcº, with the 'c' pulled out into a long horizontal stroke. (Image from archive.org.)

Reproduced from David Eugene Smith’s 1908 Rara Arithmetica, the penultimate line of this manuscript contains the abbreviation pco, with the ‘c’ pulled out into a long horizontal stroke and the ‘o’ balanced precariously at its rightmost extremity. (Image from archive.org.)

A few weeks back, Nina Stössinger asked on Twitter:

Isn’t it odd that the percent sign looks like “0/0” rather than, say, “/100” or “/00”?

This, it turns out, is a very good question. Like Nina, I had assumed that the percent sign was shaped so as to invoke the idea of a vulgar fraction, with a tiny zero aligned on either side of a solidus ( ⁄ ), or fraction slash. That said, something about those zeroes had always nagged at me. Specifically, as you divide any non-zero quantity by a smaller and smaller number the result tends ever closer to infinity (or rather, ±∞ as appropriate), until finally, when dividing by zero itself, you reach a mathematical singularity where the result cannot be computed — a numerical black hole of exotic properties and mind-bending implications. Throw in another zero as the numerator and you have a thoroughly nonsensical fraction. Though this is all terribly exciting from a philosophical point of view, it is not an especially useful situation to be in when trying to communicate the simple concept of division into hundredths. Either the ‘%’ had stumbled, blinking, from some secret garden of esoteric mathematics and into the real world, or there was more to the story. And so there was.

Writing in 1908, David Eugene Smith, later to be president of the Mathematical Association of America,[9] reported on a peculiar find he had made in an Italian manuscript written sometime during the early part of fifteenth century. (Smith was cataloguing the mathematical holdings of one George Arthur Plimpton, a publisher and philanthropist who had amassed a huge library of ancient books.) What had caught Smith’s eye was an oddly attenuated abbreviation comprising a ‘p’, an elongated ‘c’, and a superscript ‘o’, or ‘o’, balanced upon the extended upper terminal of the ‘c’, as seen at top. From its context, Smith deduced that pco was a stand-in for the words per cento, or “per hundred”, more often abbreviated to per 100, p cento, or p 100.[10] It was the first step towards a distinct percent sign — and, counterintuitively, it had precisely nothing to do with the digit zero.

A percent sign written in 1684, as reproduced in David Eugene Smith's History of Mathematics. (Image courtesy of archive.org.)

A percent sign written in 1684, as reproduced in David Eugene Smith’s History of Mathematics. (Image courtesy of archive.org.)

Smith picked up the trail with his weighty two-volume History of Mathematics, published in 1923,[11] wherein he printed an image of the percent sign caught midway between pco and ‘%’. Taken from an Italian manuscript of 1684, as seen above, by now the word per had collapsed into the tortuous but common scribal abbreviation seen here while the ‘c’ had morphed into a closed circle surmounted by a short horizontal stroke. The imperturbable ‘o’ sat atop it. All that remained was for the vestigial per to vanish and for the horizontal stroke to assume its familiar diagonal orientation — a change that occurred sometime during the nineteenth century — and the evolution of the percent sign was complete.

Since then the ‘%’ has gone from strength to strength, and today we revel in a whole family of “per ————” signs, with ‘%’ joined by ‘‰’ (“per mille”, or per thousand) and ‘‱’ (per ten thousand). All very logical, on the face of it, and all based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the percent sign came to be. Nina and I can comfort ourselves that we are not the first people, and likely will not be the last, to have made the same mistake.

  • [1] J. Bernstein, “The Hidden Language Of The \~Tilde\~,” in BuzzFeed. 2015. <http://www.buzzfeed.com/josephbernstein/the-hidden-language-of-the-tilde#.jdvLxQ0XD> Bibtex

    @misc{Bernstein2015,
      author = {Bernstein, Joseph},
      booktitle = {BuzzFeed},
      month = jan, title = {{The Hidden Language Of The \~{}Tilde\~{}}},
      url = {http://www.buzzfeed.com/josephbernstein/the-hidden-language-of-the-tilde\#.jdvLxQ0XD},
      urldate = {2015-03-29},
      year = {2015}
    }
  • [2] A. Sternbergh, “Smile, You’re Speaking Emoji,” in New York. New York: 2014. <http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/11/emojis-rapid-evolution.html> Bibtex

    @misc{Sternbergh2014, address = {New York},
      author = {Sternbergh, Adam},
      booktitle = {New York},
      keywords = {digital culture,emoji,new york magazine,texting,unicode},
      month = nov, title = {{Smile, You're Speaking Emoji}},
      url = {http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/11/emojis-rapid-evolution.html},
      urldate = {2015-03-29},
      year = {2014}
    }
  • [3] “Greek Lexicon :: G2503 (KJV),” in Blue Letter Bible. 2015. <http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2503&t=KJV> Bibtex

    @misc{BLB2015, booktitle = {Blue Letter Bible},
      keywords = {Blue Letter Bible,Free Bible Software,Hebrew,`,all,equivalent,hence,iōta,letter,minutest,of,part,smallest,the,them,to},
      title = {{Greek Lexicon :: G2503 (KJV)}},
      url = {http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2503\&t=KJV},
      urldate = {2015-03-29},
      year = {2015}
    }
  • [4] D. F. N. Jones, Chronology of the Old Testament, New Leaf Publishing Group, 2005. <https://books.google.com/books?id=AvVPlyYjX7YC&pgis=1> Bibtex

    @book{Jones2005, abstract = {The Chronology of the Old Testamenthas one goal to accomplish: to demonstrate "that every chronological statement contained in the Sacred Writ is consistent with all other chronological statements contained therein." Author Floyd Nolen Jones carefully and thoroughly investigates that chronological and mathematical facts of the Old Testament, proving them to be accurate and reliable. This biblically sound, scholarly, and easy-to-understand book will enlighten and astound its readers with solutions and alternatives to many questions Bible scholars have had over the centuries. Features: Scriptural solutions to many biblical mathematical controversies Sir Robert Anderson's calculation error corrected The 483-year prophecy of Daniel 9:25 explained A scriptural formula which biblically synchronizes the kingdoms of Judah and Israel 48 charts, graphs, and diagrams included in text Fully indexed with complete bibliography Supports and updates James Ussher's Annals of the World With reliable explanatory text, detailed charts, and diagrams, this book provides a systematic framework of the chronology of the Bible from Genesis through the life of Christ. No Bible scholar should be without this indispensable reference tool.},
      author = {Jones, Dr. Floyd Nolen},
      isbn = {1614582106},
      pages = {300},
      publisher = {New Leaf Publishing Group},
      title = {{Chronology of the Old Testament}},
      url = {https://books.google.com/books?id=AvVPlyYjX7YC\&pgis=1},
      year = {2005}
    }
  • [5] “tittle,” in OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/202640> Bibtex

    @electronic{OED-TITTLE, address = {Oxford},
      booktitle = {OED Online},
      keywords = {octothorpe,shady\_characters},
      month = aug, publisher = {Oxford University Press},
      title = {tittle},
      url = {http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/202640},
      year = {2012}
    }
  • [6] R. Sampson, Nasal Vowel Evolution in Romance, Oxford University Press, 1999. <https://books.google.com/books?id=EVjCnKuW_l0C&pgis=1> Bibtex

    @book{Sampson1999, abstract = {This book provides a complete, comparative, nongallocentric account of nasality in all the Romance languages. It demonstrates the central role of nasality in the history of sound changes in the languages of southern Europe. In doing so, it assembles a large amount of important philological and linguistic data previously dispersed and difficult to access, and organizes it in a way that allows the author (and will allow the reader) to analyse it systematically. Two introductory chapters discuss general principles of nasality and Romance nasalization. Subsequent chapters are then devoted to each language. The author considers all the standard varieties and a substantial range of non-standard varieties, and identifies broad characteristics of vowel nasalization in Romance. In the the final chapter he makes a clear bridge between the data-rich discussion of individual languages and the isolation of language universals. This is will be the standard work in its field for many years. It will be of central interest to linguists and philologists of Romance, as well as to those concerned more generally to understand the causes, patterns, and processes of sound change.},
      author = {Sampson, Rodney},
      isbn = {0198238487},
      pages = {413},
      publisher = {Oxford University Press},
      title = {{Nasal Vowel Evolution in Romance}},
      url = {https://books.google.com/books?id=EVjCnKuW\_l0C\&pgis=1},
      year = {1999}
    }
  • [7] “tilde,” in OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/201971> Bibtex

    @electronic{OED-TILDE, address = {Oxford},
      booktitle = {OED Online},
      month = jun, publisher = {Oxford University Press},
      title = {tilde},
      url = {http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/201971},
      year = {2012}
    }
  • [8] “Tittle,tilde,” in Google Ngram Viewer. Google, Inc., 2015. <https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=tittle\%2Ctilde&year_start=1500&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3> Bibtex

    @misc{google2015tittle, booktitle = {Google Ngram Viewer},
      month = mar, publisher = {Google, Inc.},
      title = {tittle,tilde},
      type = {Electronic citation},
      url = {https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=tittle\%2Ctilde\&year\_start=1500\&year\_end=2000\&corpus=15\&smoothing=3},
      year = {2015}
    }
  • [9] B. W. Fite, “[Obituary]: David Eugene Smith,” The American Mathematical Monthly, vol. 52, iss. 5, pp. 237-238, 1945. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2305875> Bibtex

    @article{MAA1945,
      author = {Fite, W Benjamin},
      issn = {00029890},
      journal = {The American Mathematical Monthly},
      number = {5},
      pages = {237--238},
      publisher = {Mathematical Association of America},
      title = {{[Obituary]: David Eugene Smith}},
      url = {http://www.jstor.org/stable/2305875},
      volume = {52},
      year = {1945}
    }
  • [10] D. E. Smith, Rara arithmetica; a catalogue of the arithmetics written before the year MDCI, with description of those in the library of George Arthur Plimpton, of New York, Boston: Ginn & company, 1908. Bibtex

    @book{Smith1908, address = {Boston},
      author = {Smith, David Eugene},
      publisher = {Ginn \& company},
      title = {{Rara arithmetica; a catalogue of the arithmetics written before the year MDCI, with description of those in the library of George Arthur Plimpton, of New York}},
      year = {1908}
    }
  • [11] D. E. Smith, History of mathematics, Boston; New York: Ginn & company, 1923. Bibtex

    @book{Smith1923, address = {Boston; New York},
      author = {Smith, David Eugene},
      publisher = {Ginn \& company},
      title = {{History of mathematics}},
      year = {1923}
    }

UK paperback competition: the winners!

Ladies and gentlemen: please put your hands together for Álvaro Franca and Yoni Weiss, winners of the UK paperback giveaway! Their names were picked at random from the set of all commenters, tweeters and Facebook users who replied, retweeted, or favourited the original posts about the competition. (Both Álvaro (@alvaroefe) and Yoni (@yonimweiss) entered via Twitter.) Their copies of the UK paperback edition of Shady Characters will be on their way soon.

Commiserations if you did not win, but thank you nonetheless for all the tweets, comments and likes!

It’s paperback publication day (again, sort of)!

The UK paperback edition of Shady Characters, as designed by Matthew Young.In the spirit of being late for one’s own wedding, I present to you the UK paperback edition of Shady Characters, a mere fortnight after its actual publication!

The paperback is available now from Penguin, Amazon.co.uk (is it wrong of me to want to crack the “Typography” category’s top 5?), The Book Depository, and Waterstones. The e-book, of course, is still available for your Kindle from Amazon and in ePub format at Waterstones.

Thanks go to Matthew Young for updating his hardcover design for the paperback edition (the color reproduction here really doesn’t do it justice — it’s a handsome book indeed), and to Mark Forsyth, Eric Johnson, Zoran Minderovic, Tim Nau, Jeff Norman, Bill Pollack, Patrick Reagh, Jeff Shay, and Liz B. Veronis for helping catch various errata. Thank you all!

To (belatedly) mark the release of the UK paperback edition of Shady Characters, here’s your chance to win of two free copies. I’ll happily post them to the two winners wherever they are in the world. To enter the competition, just do one of the following:

  • leave a comment on this post, making sure to supply a valid email address so that I can contact you in the event that you win
  • reply to, retweet, or mark as favourite the tweet announcing this contest, making sure to follow @shadychars so that I can send you a direct message in the event that you win. (Please don’t create multiple accounts or repeatedly reply to the message — Twitter may ban you as a result. One reply is fine!)
  • comment on or “like” the Facebook post announcing this contest, making sure to follow ShadyChars so that I can contact you in the event that you win. (Please don’t create multiple accounts or repeatedly comment on the message. One reply is fine!)

I’ll make a list of all unique commenters and tweeters in two weeks’ time and pick two names at random as the winners. The contest will close at noon GMT on Sunday 1st March 2015, so make sure you enter before then. Good luck!

Update: the competition is now closed. Thanks to all who entered! I’ll post the winners’ names later today.

Miscellany № 58: a selection of long reads

A back to basics post this week — here are a few longer articles and websites for you to peruse at your leisure.
Erik Kwakkel, who writes the scholarly yet readable Medieval Books blog, recently posted an entry tracing the development of footnotes in the medieval period. Erik’s writings were a great source of inspiration for me as I researched The Book, and in this instance he has managed to hit upon a subject that unites both Shady Characters’ interest in punctuation and the wider world of old books. He writes:

More popular [than the most elaborate footnote symbols], however, were less complex symbols, which could be added to the page much quicker. Dots and lines are particularly common ingredients of such footnote symbols. Interestingly, their first appearance (it seems to me) is not as a connector of comment and text, but as an insertion mark that added an omitted line into the text. […] This omission mark may well be the origins of the footnote system that would emerge over the course of the Middle Ages – and that we still use today, almost unchanged.

Footnotes, in other words, those delicious pairings of unusual symbols (*, †, ‡, etc.) and pontificatory asides, are the products not of writers but of editors. Where an editor found a line to be missing from a text, Erik says, they added it as a footnote as a courtesy to their readers and connected it to the text with an appropriate symbol. The Shady Characters book delves into the use of symbols such as the asterisk and dagger as footnote markers, but Erik’s post is the first time I’ve seen their ancient use as copyediting marks explicitly linked to their more familiar role as footnote markers.

There’s much more to read at Erik’s website, but suffice it to say that his is a tantalising idea and one that I hope he explores further in the future.

In other news, Shady Characters reader Hillel Smith writes to say that his new website Hebrew Type is up and running. Hillel is a graphic designer, illustrator and artist based in Los Angeles, and his site, comprising “a history of Jewish typography and bookmaking”, is both easy on the eye and an excellent read. Certainly, I’m hooked even after just a few entries. Take a look!
Lastly, a little self-promotion! If you’ve ever wondered about the books that inspired and informed Shady Characters then take a look at my “shelfie” in yesterday’s Independent. (Spoiler alert: it contains precisely the sort of books that you imagine.) I’m simultaneously flattered to have been featured and disturbed that my description of Eric Gill was edited down from “beloved and controversial” to simply “beloved”. When it comes to that enthrallingly awful man, I don’t think you can separate the two.

Also this week I contributed a piece to Slate’s “Lexicon Valley” blog on the history of the quotation mark. It’s derived from the Shady Characters chapter on the same subject, condensed in some parts and extended in others, and with all-new images of quotation marks through the ages. Have a read, and feel free to drop by here with any questions you might have. Enjoy!