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.

Augustus & Everything After: a Shady Characters field trip

Monumental inscription from Pompeii forum. (Photo by the author.)

Monumental inscription from Pompeii forum. (Photo by the author.)

The trip from the tourist town of Sorrento, clinging to the cliffs on the southern edge of the Bay of Naples, to the ancient settlement of Pompeii is an engaging one. Sorrento is the end of line, literally speaking: the railway track comes to an end there and so there is often a ticking, cooling train waiting on which to grab a seat before the journey begins. It’s also the place where the line’s itinerant folk bands take a cigarette break before the train beeps to signal its imminent departure. You will put a euro or two into their proffered caps, mostly because the weather is sunny and warm and you’re about to visit one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe, but also because it is physiologically impossible not to tap your foot along with upbeat accordion music.

Two kinds of trains ply the Circumvesuviana line. The new kind, the boring kind, are sleek, air-conditioned commuter appliances indistinguishable from modern light rail systems anywhere in the world, with tinted windows and space-efficient standing-room-only layouts. Their blunt, slab-sided predecessors are far more characterful, like ’70s NYC subway carriages writ large. They are battered, they creak, they are full of sharp edges and exposed rivets and peeling advertisements — and their aluminium skins are covered by graffiti from platform to roof.

Eventually, far later than advertised, the train pulls out slowly. It passes gingerly through the mountain tunnels and across the viaducts that together even out the peaks and troughs of the ragged coastline, and from its windows you watch shipyards, farms, towns and derelict factories pass you by, with the Bay of Naples sparkling behind everything to the west. And with the exception of the plants in the fields (who in their right mind would try to spray-paint crops?), everything is covered with graffiti: the trains, the buildings, the street furniture and all. I was surprised at the scale of it, but then perhaps I shouldn’t have been — the Romans have been graffiti enthusiasts from the dawn of the Republic all the way down to the present day.[1]

Brickmaker's stamp at Pompeii. (Photo by the author.)

Brickmaker’s stamp at Pompeii. This brick was laid into one of the streetside counters from which Pompeians bought prandium, or lunch, and where pots of hot food were kept warm in brick-lined receptacles. (Photo by the author.)

Personally, I was interested in one particular piece of graffiti. Pompeii is the closest that the ampersand has to a place of birth — the earliest recorded ampersand was found there as part of a graffito — and I wanted to find it for myself. I had no idea where in Pompeii it was, but then, I thought, how hard could it be to find? Time has a way of flattening ancient settlements, and I’m used to archaeological sites being mostly horizontal places where buildings, streets, and walls are witnessed only by their outlines in the ground. Surely a piece of graffiti on an upstanding wall would be signposted for all to see?

Well, no.

Pompeii is huge, and it is arrestingly intact. It is 170 acres of ash-blasted homes, shops, cafés, bath-houses, and brothels, all with their stuccoed brick walls still upright,[2] with a few marbled temples and stone theatres thrown in for good measure. Imagine all of that enticing wall space in an era before street lighting and you have a graffiti artist’s dream: when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD,[3] choking Pompeii and its inhabitants with a dense cloud of volcanic ash, its walls were covered in messages.

Shopfront lettering at Pompeii. (Photo by the author.)

Shopfront lettering at Pompeii. “Lollium”? Translations are welcome! (Photo by the author.)

Professor Brian Harvey of Kent State University has compiled a few of the more notable tags, and my word, the Romans were a bawdy lot:[4]

Atrium of the House of Pinarius
If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girlfriend.
Bar/Brothel of Innulus and Papilio
Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
Gladiator barracks
Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion.
Peristyle of the Tavern of Verecundus
Restitutus says: “Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates”.

Sadly, much of the graffiti is now lost or illegible, and as much as I looked I could not find anything resembling an ampersand. But there was plenty of “official” writing to take in as we wandered the streets in the baking heat, from monumental inscriptions down to bricks stamped with their maker’s mark, and so here I’ve collected a few of the more interesting inscriptions. (I must apologise for the quality of the photographs; I only had my smartphone with me, and I’ve had to edit some images to bring out the text.)

Inscription from theatre seating at Pompeii. (Photo by the author.)

Inscription from theatre seating at Pompeii. (Photo by the author.)

In the end, I rather forgot about finding the Pompeii ampersand. The sheer variety of messages, scripts and contexts was intriguing: there were monumental inscriptions in stately roman capitals; functional theatre seat numbers in a simple sans serif (brickmakers’ marks used a wonky, flared sans, a kind of fat, drunk Optima); and shopfronts and miscellaneous inscriptions were rendered in homely rustic capitals.

In gawking at all this I almost missed the one thing that should have been evident from the start: there is almost no punctuation! The Romans of the first century AD were still very much in thrall to the scriptio continua of their Greek cousins, and the only commonly-used mark was the interpunct (·), placed between words to it easier to parse continuous texts. There are no commas, colons, or periods here, much less any more sophisticated marks; it makes for a bracingly pure reading experience, if nothing else.

The more I think about it, though, now I’m back in dreich Edinburgh, the more it seems obvious that today’s monuments and shopfronts are lightly punctuated, too. As I look out of the window of the coffee shop in which I’m writing I can see only three non-alphabetic marks: an ampersand (irony!) on a sign for “Property Sales & Lettings”; a pair of “dumb” quotes explaining that a hairdresser is “Open Sundays”; and a full stop in a street sign that reads “St. Stephen Street”. Public typography will tell you a certain amount about how a society wrote their texts and communicated their ideas, but to really understand them you have to look at their more mundane works — the papyrus scrolls thrown onto the refuse heap, the pottery sherds used as makeshift receipts or ballot papers, or the wax tablets on which shopping lists and to-do notes were jotted down. And so today, Pompeii’s punctuational shady characters are little in evidence in the town itself — except, of course, for that one elusive ampersand, scratched somewhere on a wall and patiently awaiting rediscovery.

Inscription on stone plaque at Pompeii. (Photo by the author.)

Inscription on stone plaque at Pompeii. (Photo by the author.)

You can see more photographs of lettering at Pompeii in this photo album at Google+ (no sign in required). And if you’ve enjoyed this post, why not purchase a copy of the Shady Characters book to learn more about Roman ampersands, lettering and punctuation?
  • [1] A. Ruggeri, “Why, Why, Why Does Rome Have So Much Graffiti? – Revealed Rome,” in Revealed Rome. Rome: 2010. <http://www.revealedrome.com/2010/08/why-why-why-does-rome-have-so-much-graffiti.html> Bibtex

    @misc{Ruggeri2010, address = {Rome},
      author = {Ruggeri, Amanda},
      booktitle = {Revealed Rome},
      keywords = {Italy,graffiti ancient Rome,graffiti in Rome,street art,tagging,vandalism},
      month = aug, title = {{Why, Why, Why Does Rome Have So Much Graffiti? - Revealed Rome}},
      url = {http://www.revealedrome.com/2010/08/why-why-why-does-rome-have-so-much-graffiti.html},
      urldate = {07/11/14},
      year = {2010}
  • [2] “Pompeii, construction detail: “faux marble” column of brick covered with stucco,” in Art Images for College Teaching. University of Michigan Library. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/i/image/image-idx?id=S-AICT-X-RM057\%5DRM000_IMG0057> Bibtex

    @misc{PompeiiBrick2014, booktitle = {Art Images for College Teaching},
      publisher = {University of Michigan Library},
      title = {{Pompeii, construction detail: “faux marble” column of brick covered with stucco}},
      url = {http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/i/image/image-idx?id=S-AICT-X-RM057\%5DRM000\_IMG0057},
      urldate = {07/11/14}
  • [3] “Vesuvius (volcano, Italy),” in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/627039/Vesuvius> Bibtex

    @misc{VEB2011, address = {Chicago},
      booktitle = {Encyclopaedia Britannica},
      keywords = {ampersand,shady\_characters},
      mendeley-tags = {ampersand,shady\_characters},
      month = jun, publisher = {Encyclopaedia Britannica},
      title = {{Vesuvius (volcano, Italy)}},
      type = {Electronic citation},
      url = {http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/627039/Vesuvius},
      year = {2011}
  • [4] B. Harvey, “Graffiti from Pompeii,” in Pompeiana.org. <http://www.pompeiana.org/resources/ancient/graffiti from pompeii.htm> Bibtex

      author = {Harvey, Brian},
      booktitle = {Pompeiana.org},
      title = {{Graffiti from Pompeii}},
      url = {http://www.pompeiana.org/resources/ancient/graffiti from pompeii.htm},
      urldate = {07/11/14}

5 Punctuation Marks That Look Nothing Like They Used To

I wrote an article for the Huffington Post, and yes, I gave it a clickbait headline. Enjoy!

It’s paperback publication day!

The Shady Characters paperback cover

It barely seems a year since the Shady Characters hardback was launched. That’s because it was only a year ago, and yet here we are: the paperback is published today in the USA!

Jarrod Taylor designed the excellent new cover; Mark Forsyth, Eric Johnson, Zoran Minderovic, Tim Nau, Jeff Norman, Bill Pollack, Patrick Reagh, Jeff Shay, and Liz B. Veronis all helped weed out the errata that slipped through the net in the hardback edition. Thank you all!

So, if you’re in the market for a Shady Characters paperback, you can order yours now from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Indiebound or Powell’s. (Dare I say that it would make the perfect Christmas gift for your favourite punctuation, typography, or history buff?) If e-books are more your thing, you can get Shady Characters for your Nook at Barnes & Noble; for your iPhone or iPad at iTunes; for your Kindle at Amazon (USA) or Amazon (UK); and in ePub format at Waterstones (UK).

Paperback competition: we have a winner!

Or rather, two winners. Congratulations to commenter Lyla and Twitter user @donserifa! Theirs names were picked at random from the set of all commenters on the original competition post, plus all those who replied to, retweeted, or marked as favourite the tweet announcing the contest. Their copies of the paperback edition of Shady Characters will be on their way very soon.

There were 212 entries this time round — thank you for all the fantastic tweets and comments! Commiserations to those of you who did not win, but rest assured there will be another competition on the way in the new year!

Win a paperback copy of Shady Characters!

The Shady Characters paperback cover

Here’s your chance to win a copy of the new, all-singing, all-dancing paperback edition of Shady Characters. I have two copies to give away, and 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, or
  • 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!)

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 19th October 2014, so make sure you enter before then. Good luck!

Update: the competition is now closed. Thanks to all who entered!