Welcome to Shady Characters

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 № 46: return to Ampersand Mountain

Well, this is quite something.

Alex Jay, a long-time friend of Shady Characters, wrote in after last week’s trip to Ampersand Mountain with the results of a little historical detective work. It turns out that not only do the Adirondacks boast an Ampersand Mountain and an Ampersand Creek, once upon a time the discerning holidaymaker seeking “music, tennis court[s], base ball field, boating, riding etc.” could have done a lot worse than check in to Hotel Ampersand, nestled beneath the mountain of the same name.

Exterior of Hotel Ampersand

Hotel Ampersand, circa 1893. (Image from Google Books via Alex Jay.)

Alex came across Seneca Ray Stoddard’s Adirondacks Illustrated guidebook,[1] the twenty-third edition of which was published in 1893 (and from which these illustrations are taken) while researching the graphic design of the ampersand through the years. Stoddard was a renowned photographer and travel writer with a fondness for the Adirondacks in particular, who publicised his photographs and books with public lectures describing his trips to all corners of the globe.[2] (I am put in mind of those bands who use live gigs to sell other merchandise such as T-shirts and CDs.)

Lobby of Hotel Ampersand

The lobby of Hotel Ampersand, circa 1893. (Image from Google Books via Alex Jay.)

Stoddard was evidently quite taken by Hotel Ampersand. He described it as “roomy, rambling and artistic — full of unsuspected corners and pleasant surprises”; he draws attention to the elevator that “makes all floors almost equally desirable”; and notes approvingly that the hotel “is heated throughout with steam and lighted with gas.” Separately, and rather surprisingly, it transpires that the New York Public Library possesses a menu from the hotel’s spacious dining room, dated to 1891, and from which one might order a cosmopolitan meal of Consommé Royale, Beef Braisé à la Bourgeoise, and Almond Blanc Mange.[3] Discounting its rural situation, the Adirondacks’ Hotel Ampersand was — well, it was The Ampersand Hotel of its day.

So: are there any other punctuation-related hotels or eateries out there? Let us know in the comments! Finally, many thanks to Alex Jay for taking the time to send over this material — I hope that you all enjoyed this trip down punctuational memory lane as much as I did.

  • [1] S. Stoddard, The Adirondacks, 23rd ed., Glens Falls, NY: The Author, 1893. Bibtex

    @book{Stoddard1893, address = {Glens Falls, NY},
      author = {Stoddard, Seneca},
      edition = {23rd},
      publisher = {The Author},
      title = {{The Adirondacks}},
      year = {1893}
    }
  • [2] “Seneca Ray Stoddard.” Albany, NY: New York State Museum. <https://www.nysm.nysed.gov/virtual/exhibits/SRS/> Bibtex

    @misc{NYSMStoddard, address = {Albany, NY},
      publisher = {New York State Museum},
      title = {{Seneca Ray Stoddard}},
      url = {https://www.nysm.nysed.gov/virtual/exhibits/SRS/},
      urldate = {13/04/14}
    }
  • [3] “Hotel Ampersand,” in Whats on the menu?. New York: NYPL Labs. <http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/29520> Bibtex

    @misc{AmpersandMenu, address = {New York},
      booktitle = {Whats on the menu?},
      publisher = {NYPL Labs},
      title = {{Hotel Ampersand}},
      url = {http://menus.nypl.org/menu\_pages/29520},
      urldate = {13/04/14}
    }

Miscellany № 45: the endangered @

I learn from Mashable and Buzzfeed that Twitter is planning to streamline its user interface so as to downplay the roles of the @-symbol and the ‘#’, or octothorpe.

I am troubled by this.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is a “microblogging” service where users post messages restricted to 140 characters or fewer. When replying to a message, the response is automatically prefixed with an @-sign and the original author’s name. For example, if I, as @shadychars, posted this message:

Who doesn’t love the interrobang‽

Were someone to respond — one @orkneydullard, say — upon hitting the reply button they would be presented with a textbox that is pre-populated with the username of the original author. Their reply might look like this:

@shadychars I know! It’s great, isn’t it?

From my limited reading of the Twitter developer documentation, it looks like this “@username” prefix is what a computer programmer would call “syntactic sugar” — a purely aesthetic construct that has no effect on the underlying functionality of the service. Twitter knows who you are when you post a tweet, and it knows who your respondents are; Twitter’s websites and applications can present the conversation to you in a logical, chronologically-ordered fashion with the authors of the various tweets made clear, as an email client might do, without any actual need to belabour the names of the participants.

Twitter also appears to be looking into the use of “hashtags”, where any word prefixed by a ‘#’ permits users to search for other tweets that use the same term simply by clicking or tapping on the term. Each hashtag in a tweet becomes a sort of mini-topic, or grouping mechanism. My guess (although I haven’t seen any screenshots to confirm this) is that once typed in, hashtags will be removed from the 140-character limit and presented as separate buttons or user interface elements.

I can understand the motivation behind the changes: relying on esoteric syntax and symbols is not the best way to engage sceptical would-be users, and freeing up a few characters per message would certainly help those of us who have trouble expressing ourselves concisely. That said, the @-symbol and the octothorpe have always been the shrinking violets of the punctuation world; it took the arrival of Internet email to rehabilitate the ‘@’, and these days the ‘#’ owes its popularity almost entirely to Twitter. What does the future hold if their most prominent booster casts them by the wayside?

In happier news: feast your eyes on the view from Ampersand Mountain!

View from Ampersand Mountain, New York

The picturesque (punctuationesque?) view from the summit of Ampersand Mountain in upstate New York. (Image courtesy of user “Mwanner” on Wikipedia.)

Recently, one of my Google Alerts sent me to an innocuous-looking local news site reporting on a hiking group in the Ticonderoga area of New York state. “Trail Mix”, as the group calls itself, have visited a variety of peaks in the Adirondacks — including one which takes its name from the tortuous meanderings of a nearby creek. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Ampersand Mountain!

Miscellany № 44: clampersands and dieses

First off, I give you The Adjustable Clampersand. Need I say more?

Actually, I do. As much as you or I might want to lay our hands on one of these glorious devices, we’ll just have to wait. As Hand-Eye Supply explains on the clampersand’s product page,

Sad news! The machine shop at the Foundry where our next run of Clampersands was being finished burned down and our latest run was destroyed. Here’s the news story via NBC Chicago. Fortunately no one was seriously injured, and a new run of Clampersands is expected soon.

Hand-Eye say that a new foundry will be, well, found as soon as possible, and clampersand shipments will resume in mid-April. (Hat tip to I Love Typography for the link!)

The origins of the diesis, or ‘‡’, have remained obscure to me since I first started researching its singular sibling, the dagger (†).[4] The word “diesis” was once used in music to represent a sharp (and indeed in French, the related dièse still is), while its etymology, coming from the Greek δίεσις or “sending through”, does have a hint of piercing or cutting to it.[5] Separately, the visual appearance of the diesis is clearly a straightforward “doubling” of the dagger.

The questions that remain, then, are these: when did the typographic diesis appear, and why? Reader Ivan Bececco sent me a link to his own investigation on the matter (in Italian, here), though unless Google Translate has entirely misled me as to the contents of his article, Ivan too concludes that we just don’t know where the diesis came from. Having looked back through my own notes, none of the typographic references I’ve looked at discuss the history of this familiar but mysterious mark.[6][7][8][9]

So: can any Shady Characters readers shed any light on this? Did the diesis originate with printing, or before it? How did the dagger become the double dagger, and how did it get its name?

In other news, the New York Times tackles the hyphen; Mike Parker, populariser of Neue Haas Grotesk (Helvetica to you and me) has died, and the BBC and The Guardian take a look back at the man and his favoured typeface; Stan Carey takes on “emphatic” quotation marks at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog; and the intricacies of interpreting seventeenth-century semicolons is explored by Christopher M. Graney.

Thanks for reading!

  • [1] S. Stoddard, The Adirondacks, 23rd ed., Glens Falls, NY: The Author, 1893. Bibtex

    @book{Stoddard1893, address = {Glens Falls, NY},
      author = {Stoddard, Seneca},
      edition = {23rd},
      publisher = {The Author},
      title = {{The Adirondacks}},
      year = {1893}
    }
  • [2] “Seneca Ray Stoddard.” Albany, NY: New York State Museum. <https://www.nysm.nysed.gov/virtual/exhibits/SRS/> Bibtex

    @misc{NYSMStoddard, address = {Albany, NY},
      publisher = {New York State Museum},
      title = {{Seneca Ray Stoddard}},
      url = {https://www.nysm.nysed.gov/virtual/exhibits/SRS/},
      urldate = {13/04/14}
    }
  • [3] “Hotel Ampersand,” in Whats on the menu?. New York: NYPL Labs. <http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/29520> Bibtex

    @misc{AmpersandMenu, address = {New York},
      booktitle = {Whats on the menu?},
      publisher = {NYPL Labs},
      title = {{Hotel Ampersand}},
      url = {http://menus.nypl.org/menu\_pages/29520},
      urldate = {13/04/14}
    }
  • [4] J. Hoefler, “House of Flying Reference Marks, or Quillon & Choil,” in typography.com. Hoefler and Frere-Jones, 2009. <http://www.typography.com/ask/showBlog.php?blogID=190> Bibtex

    @misc{JH2009,
      author = {Hoefler, Jonathan},
      booktitle = {typography.com},
      keywords = {dagger,obelisk,shady\_characters},
      mendeley-tags = {dagger,obelisk,shady\_characters},
      month = jun, publisher = {Hoefler and Frere-Jones},
      title = {{House of Flying Reference Marks, or Quillon \& Choil}},
      type = {Electronic citation},
      url = {http://www.typography.com/ask/showBlog.php?blogID=190},
      year = {2009}
    }
  • [5] “diesis, n.,” in OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/52420> Bibtex

    @electronic{OED-DIESIS, address = {Oxford},
      booktitle = {OED Online},
      keywords = { shady\_characters,obelisk},
      month = aug, publisher = {Oxford University Press},
      title = {diesis, n.},
      url = {http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/52420},
      year = {2012}
    }
  • [6] C. H. Timperley, “On References, &c.,” in A dictionary of printers and printing: with the progress of literature, ancient and modern, bibliographical illustrations …, H. Johnson, 1839, pp. 9-12. <http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3O8DAAAAQAAJ> Bibtex

    @incollection{timperley1839dictionary,
      author = {Timperley, C H},
      booktitle = {A dictionary of printers and printing: with the progress of literature, ancient and modern, bibliographical illustrations ...},
      keywords = { dagger, obelisk, shady\_characters,asterisk},
      pages = {9--12},
      publisher = {H. Johnson},
      title = {{On References, \&c.}},
      url = {http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3O8DAAAAQAAJ},
      year = {1839}
    }
  • [7] “Footnotes,” in Manual of style, being a compilation of the typographical rules in force at the University of Chicago press, to which are appended specimens of types in use., Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1906, pp. 71-73. <http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/18621241> Bibtex

    @incollection{CHICAGO-FOOTNOTES, address = {Chicago, IL},
      booktitle = {Manual of style, being a compilation of the typographical rules in force at the University of Chicago press, to which are appended specimens of types in use.},
      keywords = {asterisk,dagger,obelisk,shady\_characters},
      pages = {71--73},
      publisher = {University of Chicago Press},
      title = {{Footnotes}},
      url = {http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/18621241},
      year = {1906}
    }
  • [8] J. Johnson, “References,” in Typographia, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green, 1824, vol. 2, pp. 49-53. <http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HHwsAAAAYAAJ> Bibtex

    @incollection{johnson1824typographia-references,
      author = {Johnson, J},
      booktitle = {Typographia},
      keywords = {manicule,shady\_characters},
      pages = {49--53},
      publisher = {Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown \& Green},
      series = {Typographia},
      title = {{References}},
      url = {http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HHwsAAAAYAAJ},
      volume = {2},
      year = {1824}
    }
  • [9] T. Rosendorf, “Double dagger,” in The Typographic Desk Reference, New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Books, 2009, p. 42. <http://www.worldcat.org/isbn/9781584562313> Bibtex

    @inbook{TDR2009-double-dagger, abstract = {"This typography book is somewhere between a quick reference guide and an in-depth analysis. Limited to Latin-based writing systems with an emphasis on form and practical application."--Provided by publisher.},
      address = {New Castle, DE},
      author = {Rosendorf, Theodore},
      booktitle = {The Typographic Desk Reference},
      isbn = {9781584562313},
      pages = {42+},
      publisher = {Oak Knoll Books},
      title = {double dagger},
      url = {http://www.worldcat.org/isbn/9781584562313},
      year = {2009}
    }

Mea culpa № 2

This is a quick note to thank Tim Nau for his eagle-eyed contributions to the Shady Characters errata. As always, please don’t hesitate to get in touch or leave a comment below if you come across an error in any edition or format of Shady Characters. I’d appreciate it very much, and I’d be very happy to acknowledge you in future editions!

Miscellany № 43: sartalics \live\!

It’s a sad fact of life in this business (that is, the business of unusual punctuation marks) that many a promising mark has gone the way of the dodo. The SarcMark©, for instance, was a veritable punctuational mayfly; Paul Mathis’ attempt to rebrand ‘the’ as ‘Ћ’ was over almost as soon as it had begun; and so on, and so forth. The archives of this blog are littered with the corpses of failed innovations.

It is with some satisfaction, then, that I can now report that “Sartalics”, the digital reinterpretation of Tom Driberg’s “ironics”, or backwards-slanting italics, has recently been resuscitated. Nathan Hoang, one of the three advertising interns who launched sartalics.com back in 2011 (the others being June Kim and Blake Gilmore), has recently brought the long-dormant @Sartalics Twitter account back to life.

Rather than focusing on introducing an entirely new style of font, however, this time round Nathan is concentrating on the use of backslashes as a signal of ironic intent. I think this is actually a rather neat idea; the use of *asterisks* to imply bold or emphasised text is as old as the hills in Internet terms, and employing backslashes to convey \irony\ or \sarcasm\ is a very short leap from there. No fiddling with Unicode characters or font editors — textual sarcasm is right there at your fingertips. Clearly, though, sartalics in any form have a long way to go before they can claim to be in common use. As Nathan says himself,

Slow clap for #Sartalics. \A lot of progress\ since 2011.

What do you think? Is there a future for this most \useful\ of textual innovations?

As I research material for The Book I find myself subscribing to a whole new set of book- and manuscript-related blogs. Recently, at Jesse Hurlbut’s Manuscript Art blog, and apropos of nothing much at all, I came across this lovely decorative paragraph mark, or pilcrow. If you’re interested in seeing more, I highly recommend following Jesse’s blog.

In other news, Mark Libermann of UPenn’s Language Log blog brings to our attention the scandalous news that “EU rules ‘mean children can’t get life-saving cancer drugs’”; and, lastly, the ampersand inspires a poem at Magma Poetry.

Thanks for reading!