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 № 52: Eric Gill gets handsy

Gill Sans Manicules courtesy of Dan Rhatigan and Vernacular Type.

Eric Gill’s Gill Sans manicules, courtesy of Dan Rhatigan and Vernacular Type.

A visual treat this week!

Our header image (above) depicts a pair of manicules as drawn by celebrity pilcrow-user, type designer, and all-round reprehensible human being Mr. Eric Gill. The picture here was taken by Molly Woodward (aka @VernacularType) at a lecture given by Dan Rhatigan of Monotype. There’s little more to say, except look at those manicules! Gill Sans has its idiosyncracies, certainly, but to the casual observer it remains an exercise in geometric forms and yet these expressive manicules are cut from a quite different cloth.

Sadly, Monotype’s digital version of Gill Sans lacks manicules entirely, much as Linotype’s digital incarnation of Americana lacks its signature interrobang. Plus ça change! Perhaps one day some type designer with an affinity for shady characters will reunite Gill’s manicules and Richard Isbell’s interrobang with their estranged digital families.

Thanks to Molly and Dan for providing the image!

A type specimen demonstrating a series of oversized manicules, as captured by Nick Sherman at the Flickr ☞ Manicule Pool. (CC-BY-NC-SA image courtesy of Nick Sherman.)

A type specimen demonstrating a series of oversized manicules, as captured by Nick Sherman at the Flickr ☞ Manicule Pool. (CC-BY-NC-SA image courtesy of Nick Sherman.)

Examining Eric Gill’s 1920s-era manicules reminded me of the Flickr ☞ Manicule Pool, a collaborative collection of manicules snapped in myriad settings and across different times. There are digital manicules; analogue manicules; relief manicules; intaglio manicules; sculptural manicules; type specimens; signposts; advertising hoardings; and much more. The pool is a great place to browse, and it drives home just how indispensible this simple sign was to signwriters, advertisers, and businesses — and how sharply it fell from favour. The arrows that have replaced it (← →) just lack the same degree of panache, do they not?
This was to be a longer entry, but unfortunately my tardiness has got in the way. Twitter user @dheadshot pointed me in the direction of a BBC radio programme presented by Simon Armitage, a poet and writer, entitled Marginalia, which purported to look at the history of writing in the margins in books — including the not inconsiderable role of the manicule. It was, by all accounts, a fascinating examination of these hinterlands of books, where readers intrude on writers’ territory, and I was very much looking forward to listening to it. And to passing it on to Shady Characters’ readers, of course.

Unfortunately, I am too late. The programme has expired on the BBC’s iPlayer platform, so we’ll have to wait for it to be rebroadcast another time. I’ll be sure to post it here when it reappears.

And with that anticlimax, thanks for reading!

Miscellany № 51: a new-old-stock irony mark

A grab-bag of miscellaneous links for you this week; I am knee-deep in nineteenth-century printing history at the moment, courtesy of The Book. Enjoy!
After writing about irony marks again recently (specifically, Michele Buchanan’s project to introduce an irony mark along with two other marks of punctuation), I was simultaneously happy and dismayed to come across yet another irony mark on Twitter recently. This one, however, is something of a blast from the past.

18th-century irony mark from A clear and practical system of punctuation by Joseph Robertson. (Image courtesy of Tim Cassedy and The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

18th-century irony mark from A clear and practical system of punctuation by Joseph Robertson. (Image courtesy of Tim Cassedy and The Library Company of Philadelphia.)

Now this is interesting. Readers of the Shady Characters book will recall that a very similar proposal was made in 1668 when John Wilkins, one of the founding members of the Royal Society,[1] published a book entitled An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language.[2] This “real character” and its associated “philosophical language” were a kind of ontological experiment designed to represent literally anything under the sun by means of a single, unified written and spoken language.

We all know how well that went.

Almost as an afterthought, Wilkins suggested that ironic statements might be punctuated by an inverted exclamation mark, or ‘¡’. This, too, was a flop, though the idea has had a bit of a resurgence in recent years, as we’ve seen here. What makes Joseph Robertson’s mark interesting, then, as mooted in his 1792 book A clear and practical system of punctuation,[3] is not just that it represents another use of ‘¡’ for irony but that it comes just 124 years later. It closes the gap quite betwen the seventeenth and twentieth centuries quite considerably — is this part of a longer, unbroken chain, perhaps? Any evidence of this would be very much appreciated.

The editors of the OED recently announced that the word “hashtag” is to be added to their hallowed pages.[4] This is, arguably, less interesting than recent French moves to re-brand the hashtag as the mot-dièse, and still less so than the vexed question of where the ‘#’ got the name “octothorpe”, but we can be happy at least that this venerable mark continues to enjoy a new lease on life.
And finally, via the BBC, an exercise for the reader: how does one write about a poem consisting only of punctuation?

Thanks for reading!

  • [1] R. Chambers and R. Carruthers, “Dr John Wilkins.” Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, 1847. <http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2cUiAAAAMAAJ> Bibtex

    @incollection{chambers1847cyclopaedia-wilkins,
      author = {Chambers, R. and Carruthers, R.},
      keywords = {irony,shady\_characters},
      mendeley-tags = {irony,shady\_characters},
      publisher = {Gould, Kendall and Lincoln},
      title = {{Dr John Wilkins}},
      type = {Book part (with own title)},
      url = {http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2cUiAAAAMAAJ},
      year = {1847}
    }
  • [2] J. Wilkins, An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language., Printed for S. Gellibrand [etc.], 1668. <http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/4088592> Bibtex

    @book{JW1668,
      author = {Wilkins, John},
      keywords = {irony,shady\_characters},
      mendeley-tags = {irony,shady\_characters},
      publisher = {Printed for S. Gellibrand [etc.]},
      title = {{An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language.}},
      type = {Book},
      url = {http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/4088592},
      year = {1668}
    }
  • [3] J. Robertson, A clear and practical system of punctuation : abridged from Robertson’s Essay on punctuation : for the use of schools., Boston: I. Thomas and E.T. Andrews, 1792. Bibtex

    @book{Robertson1792, address = {Boston},
      author = {Robertson, J},
      publisher = {I. Thomas and E.T. Andrews},
      title = {{A clear and practical system of punctuation : abridged from Robertson's Essay on punctuation : for the use of schools.}},
      year = {1792}
    }
  • [4] “hashtag, n.,” in OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/389023#eid301493073> Bibtex

    @electronic{OED-HASHTAG, address = {Oxford},
      booktitle = {OED Online},
      month = jun, publisher = {Oxford University Press},
      title = {hashtag, n.},
      url = {http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/389023\#eid301493073},
      year = {2014}
    }

Miscellany № 50: interrobangs in space!

I exaggerate for effect. Although thanks to Martin von Wyss, an Australian geographer, cartographer and punctuation enthusiast, we’re on the cusp of interrobangs visible from space even if they aren’t technically in space. I came across a tweet of Martin’s a few weeks ago, and if you take a second to click on that link you’ll see exactly why I was keen to get in touch.

Martin has painted an interrobang on the roof of his house.

Martin von Wyss' rooftop interrobang. (Image courtesy of nearmap.)

Martin von Wyss’ rooftop interrobang. (Image courtesy of nearmap.)

I sent Martin a message to ask him why he had undertaken this noble task and his answer, to paraphrase George Mallory’s famous justification for tackling Mount Everest, was joyously simple: because he could. Martin writes:

Ever since Google Maps (or was it Mapquest?) came along with their free images in 2003(?), I’ve been conniving about orthophoto art. But it wasn’t until recently that I had roof access! And in the meantime I learned to love the interrobang.

As a cartographer, typography and fonts matter a great deal to me. In my work I usually end up using sans serif fonts that are legible at very small sizes and lend the map an air of impartiality. But I knew that no one would get a headache from reading one character in all of greater Melbourne’s roofs, so I went for an expressive serifed interrobang. Since I’m on Twitter and since they’ve chosen such a fine specimen for their logo, I used the logo of the State Library of NSW as my model when sketching out my character on the roof.

We used a pink chalk for the outlines on the metal deck and whatever paint it is we found in the garage for painting our character. An added benefit to the project is increasing our albedo!

Amazing. Martin’s house is both literally and metaphorically cooler as a result of his endeavour.

The von Wyss interrobang in progress. Martin's son does the honours. (Image courtesy of Martin von Wyss.)

The von Wyss interrobang in progress. Martin’s son does the honours. (Image courtesy of Martin von Wyss.)

Readers of the Shady Characters book will find that Martin’s interrobang is familiar; it does indeed mirror the one used by State Library of New South Wales, although that august institution took the conventional route of placing its emblem on its walls rather than its roof. (The NSW interrobang, coincidentally, was the product of Vince Frost of Frost Design, who explained the reasoning behind the logo to me back in 2011.)

The von Wyss interrobang at roof level. (Image courtesy of Martin von Wyss.)

The von Wyss interrobang at roof level. (Image courtesy of Martin von Wyss.)

The image at the top of the page comes courtesy of nearmap, an Australian company that transforms aerial photographs into images suitable for use in mapping. Martin tells me that he awaits the next overflight of a Google Maps satellite so that his rooftop interrobang will finally be imaged from space and available for all to see. Perhaps it’s time for a Google Earth Alphabet of unusual marks of punctuation.

I can’t thank Martin enough for posting his picture to Twitter and for all his help in preparing this post. Check out his website for Australian Wine Maps and more!

Reader Angus got in touch after my recent post about the “quasiquote” to explain that he has been using a mark of his own invention with a similar meaning. He sent in an image to illustrate his symbol, a “broken” quotation mark in contrast to the underlined quotation mark we saw last time, that he uses in written correspondence:

An alternative form of the quasiquote. (Image courtesy of Shady Characters reader Angus.)

An alternative form of the quasiquote. (Image courtesy of Shady Characters reader Angus.)

I must thank Angus for getting in touch and for sending in a custom-made demonstration of his mark. Have you come up with any alternatively renderings for marks discussed here? An alternate-universe interrobang, perhaps, or an improved ampersand? Let us know in the comments, or drop me a line via the Contact form!

Quasiquotes: too good to post only once

Did you catch last weekend’s post on the “quasiquote”? I sincerely hope so, because Ned Brooks and Sandra Bond helped me uncover the history of a truly interesting mark of punctuation, and one that sparked a flurry of comments.
For new readers, a quick reminder that you can follow Shady Characters on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Goodreads. If you prefer to kick it old school, you can subscribe to notifications of new posts via email (as ever, your email address will not be shared with any third parties) or RSS. Thanks for dropping by!

Miscellany № 49: introducing the quasiquote

The best thing about running Shady Characters, bar none, is when a reader alerts me to a genuinely novel punctuation mark. A symbol I haven’t seen before, perhaps, or one that fills a niche I hadn’t ever considered. Ned Brooks checked both these boxes when he posted to the Shady Characters Facebook page to tell me about the so-called quasiquote. I’ll let Ned introduce this fantastic mark of punctuation:

The interrobang was discussed on the Yahoo group for typewriter collectors, and it reminded me of another punctuation mark popular at one time in mimeographed science fiction fanzines – the quasiquote. This was made of the ‐ typed under the " and meant that the phrase quoted might be the sense rather that the exact words from some source.[5]

First, a bit of background. “Fanzines”, for the uninitiated, are self-published magazines produced by the fans of a particular hobby — science fiction, punk music or video games, to pick just a few — and are often characterised by a lo-fi approach to their printing and distribution. As Ned mentions, early ’zines were “mimeographed” — that is, they were produced using an early type of copying machine called a mimeograph. A master stencil of each page was produced by typing onto a sheet of wax paper and was then copied by the machine, which forced ink through the stencil and onto a blank sheet of paper.[6]

The use of typewriters to prepare mimeographic stencils made it easy to overstrike mistakes (the traditional fanzine approach was to do this with slashes — ‘/’ — rather than ‘X’s or dashes), or even to deliberately combine characters. “The interrobang was easily made with a back-space and over-type”, as Ned told me via email, which is remarkable in itself. But this quirk of typewriter operation also allowed the construction of the fabled quasiquote, where a hyphen and quotation mark were overstruck to produce something like "this", or 'this', and which encapsulated an abbreviated or paraphrased quotation rather a verbatim report of the speaker’s words.

Ned’s explanation of the quasiquote would have been intriguing enough by itself, but he outdid himself by sending me scans of two fanzine lexicons that described and demonstrated the quasiquote in action. Here, then, straight from the horse’s mouth, is the definition of the quasiquote as given by the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer, one of the founding fathers of fandom:[7]

Definition of the quasiquote as given in the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

Definition of the quasiquote as given in the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

And later, from the 1966 reprint of the 1955 Neofan’s Guide by one Bob Tucker, a fan who went on to become a professional writer in his own right:[8]

1956 definition of quasiquote by Bob Tucker, as given in his Neofan’s Guide. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

1956 definition of quasiquote by Bob Tucker, as given in his Neofan’s Guide. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

Despite its novelty outside the fanzine community, the quasiquote was no flash in the pan. Attested as early as 1944 (and likely created even earlier), it is still used in some ’zines and has even lent its name to one: Londoner Sandra Bond published a science-fiction ’zine named QuasiQuote from 1999 to 2008,[9] adopting the name of the mark “because (to me) it evoked a nicely retro feel, as well as commemorating a typographical quirk I thought deserved to be remembered.” Ironically enough, as technology has advanced the quasiquote has become more difficult to type, and Sandra told me that “the quasiquote as used in QuasiQuote, the fanzine (i.e. this: -") was only in that form because unlike a manual typewriter where overstrikes were possible, I couldn’t put both the quote and the hyphen in one space in a word processor.”[10]

Where now, then, for the quasiquote? Graphically, there’s nothing to stop the quasiquote from appearing on computer screens everywhere. Modern word processors may lack a simple way to overstrike characters but they almost universally allow text to be struck out with a horizontal line; HTML, too, the language of the World Wide Web, allows text to be struck out in a similar manner. I dont know about you, but I think that these hacked-together quasiquotes look rather fetching.

It’s far more difficult to see how quasiquotes might fare as a regular mark of punctuation. They certainly have a neatly unambiguous function that is not already fulfilled by any other mark of punctuation; writers have been paraphrasing quotations since time immemorial, but either they do not trouble to tell their readers or they signpost their words with exculpatory statements such as “in other words”, or “words to that effect”. And unlike some novel marks of punctuation (I’m looking at you, SarcMark®) the quasiquote is not offensively weird to the eye. Even so, the lot of the newly-invented (or, if I may say so, newly-discovered) mark of punctuation is rarely an easy one. We all know how the interrobang fared — neither snuffed out entirely nor enshrined in common use — and the quasiquote will surely face just the same uphill struggle for acceptance. I, for one, will be rooting for it.

Thanks to Ned Brooks for getting in touch and for his scans, and to Sandra Bond for answering my questions. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and please leave a comment below if you’ve come across the quasiquote or any analogous mark in print!
  • [1] R. Chambers and R. Carruthers, “Dr John Wilkins.” Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, 1847. <http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2cUiAAAAMAAJ> Bibtex

    @incollection{chambers1847cyclopaedia-wilkins,
      author = {Chambers, R. and Carruthers, R.},
      keywords = {irony,shady\_characters},
      mendeley-tags = {irony,shady\_characters},
      publisher = {Gould, Kendall and Lincoln},
      title = {{Dr John Wilkins}},
      type = {Book part (with own title)},
      url = {http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=2cUiAAAAMAAJ},
      year = {1847}
    }
  • [2] J. Wilkins, An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language., Printed for S. Gellibrand [etc.], 1668. <http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/4088592> Bibtex

    @book{JW1668,
      author = {Wilkins, John},
      keywords = {irony,shady\_characters},
      mendeley-tags = {irony,shady\_characters},
      publisher = {Printed for S. Gellibrand [etc.]},
      title = {{An essay towards a real character, and a philosophical language.}},
      type = {Book},
      url = {http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/4088592},
      year = {1668}
    }
  • [3] J. Robertson, A clear and practical system of punctuation : abridged from Robertson’s Essay on punctuation : for the use of schools., Boston: I. Thomas and E.T. Andrews, 1792. Bibtex

    @book{Robertson1792, address = {Boston},
      author = {Robertson, J},
      publisher = {I. Thomas and E.T. Andrews},
      title = {{A clear and practical system of punctuation : abridged from Robertson's Essay on punctuation : for the use of schools.}},
      year = {1792}
    }
  • [4] “hashtag, n.,” in OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/389023#eid301493073> Bibtex

    @electronic{OED-HASHTAG, address = {Oxford},
      booktitle = {OED Online},
      month = jun, publisher = {Oxford University Press},
      title = {hashtag, n.},
      url = {http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/389023\#eid301493073},
      year = {2014}
    }
  • [5] C. W. Brooks, “Personal correspondence.” Keith Houston, 2014. Bibtex

    @misc{NedBrooks2014Correspondence,
      author = {Brooks, Cuyler W},
      month = jun, publisher = {Keith Houston},
      title = {{Personal correspondence}},
      type = {Unpublished work},
      year = {2014}
    }
  • [6] “Behind the Scenes: The Mimeograph,” in The Queensland Museum Network Blog. Queensland Museum Network, 2011. <http://blog.qm.qld.gov.au/2011/07/12/behind-the-scenes-2/> Bibtex

    @misc{QLD2014Mimeograph, booktitle = {The Queensland Museum Network Blog},
      month = jul, publisher = {Queensland Museum Network},
      title = {{Behind the Scenes: The Mimeograph}},
      url = {http://blog.qm.qld.gov.au/2011/07/12/behind-the-scenes-2/},
      urldate = {08/06/14},
      year = {2011}
    }
  • [7] “Jack Speer,” in Fancyclopedia 3. <http://fancyclopedia.org/jack-speer> Bibtex

    @misc{JackSpeer2014, booktitle = {Fancyclopedia 3},
      title = {{Jack Speer}},
      url = {http://fancyclopedia.org/jack-speer},
      urldate = {08/06/14}
    }
  • [8] “Tucker, Wilson,” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 2014. <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/tucker_wilson> Bibtex

    @misc{TuckerWilson2014, booktitle = {The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction},
      month = apr, title = {{Tucker, Wilson}},
      url = {http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/tucker\_wilson},
      urldate = {08/06/14},
      year = {2014}
    }
  • [9] “QuasiQuote,” in ZineWiki. 2013. <http://zinewiki.com/QuasiQuote> Bibtex

    @misc{QQ2014ZineWiki, booktitle = {ZineWiki},
      keywords = {Awry,Banana Wings,Bill Rotsler,DNQ,Destiny,Harry Warner,Horizons,Jr.,Mark Plummer,Oblong,Ploy,QuasiQuote},
      month = may, title = {{QuasiQuote}},
      url = {http://zinewiki.com/QuasiQuote},
      urldate = {08/06/14},
      year = {2013}
    }
  • [10] S. Bond, “Personal correspondence.” Keith Houston, 2014. Bibtex

    @misc{SandraBond2014Correspondence,
      author = {Bond, Sandra},
      month = jun, publisher = {Keith Houston},
      title = {{Personal correspondence}},
      type = {Unpublished work},
      year = {2014}
    }