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.

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!

Miscellany № 57: ampersand, plus, and _____?

Rebecca Kirch's collection of handwritten plus signs. (Image © Rebecca Kirch.)

Rebecca Kirch’s superposed collection of handwritten plus signs. (Image © Rebecca Kirch.)

Happy New Year, everyone! To celebrate the coming of the new year, let’s, er, start by looking back to the old one. Back in December, in response to my post about the ampersand/plus-sign face-off currently underway on the signs of London’s hipster restaurants, commenter Jeremy wrote:

[H]aving taken what might well be hundreds of miles of handwritten notes over the years, I regard the ampersand as too fiddly for quick writing, and instead use a sort of “+” with the far-left and top ends joined. I don’t know if this is a real character (maybe from shorthand?) and I was taught it at some point, or whether it just morphed from a “+”and lazy writing. However, it stands out from the text and (at least with my handwriting), does not get confused with a “t”.

Jamsheed replied:

Well, you’re doing it all wrong! It’s supposed to be the far left and bottom ends that you join together. And I know I’m right, because that’s how I have been doing it all my life.

But seriously, I wholeheartedly agree.

Jeremy and Jamsheed are both correct, of course — there’s more than one way to write a legible ‘+’, ‘&’ or other ‘and’-sign, even when discussing what is ostensibly a single mark. Their description of an augmented or hurried ‘+’-like symbol brought to mind an email conversation I had a few years ago with a designer named Rebecca Kirch (née Alden) about almost exactly the same subject, and that, in turn, got me thinking about how we create, disseminate, and “standardise” new marks or forms of punctuation.

Back in 2004, Rebecca told me, she had decided to examine how the ampersand, plus sign and their kin fared when pen met paper. This would form part of a Masters thesis on the subject, and the result of her research was a fascinating series of images that illustrated just how much our personal ‘and’-signs vary when the time comes to write them down. (You can see one such image above, depicting a multitude of handwritten plus signs like the one described by Jeremy and Jamsheed.) As Rebecca explained in the introduction to her thesis:

Symbolic abbreviations for certain words are part of everyday handwriting, yet they are not part of the alphabet. For example, a writer may use & for ‘and’, w/ for ‘with’ or @ for ‘at’. There are many reasons to use these symbols: maybe because it is faster, or because it saves space, because it looks nice, or because it is more fun to write. Some people use such symbols so frequently and automatically that they have become ingrained in their handwriting.

The way that a handwritten symbol varies from writer to writer “because it is faster, or because it saves space, because it looks nice, or because it is more fun to write” is a recurring theme here at Shady Characters. It is the little idiosyncrasies of our handwriting — the unconscious variations on existing glyphs and the shortcuts we take as write down familiar marks and letters — that have moulded the visual appearance of many marks of punctuation as much as any deliberate process of design. The ampersand, for instance, comes from the juxtaposition of the letters E and t; the ‘@’ may well come from an a surmounted by a bar, or tilde; and the ‘#’ is the formalized descendant of a hastily-written, barred for libra. It is the unpredictability of the human hand, not the aesthetic judgement of a type designer or stone-cutter, that has laid the foundations of our written letters and punctuation.

Collected 'and'-signs. (Image © Rebecca Kirch.)

Collected ‘and’-signs. (Image © Rebecca Kirch.)

To explore this phenomenon in flight, so to speak, Rebecca catalogued a variety of handwritten ‘and’-signs, including the ampersand, Jeremy and Jamsheed’s looped plus sign, the familiar ‘reversed-3-with-vertical-bar’ (for want of a better term) seen at left, and many other similar marks. Having separated the marks into related groups she superimposed male and female interpretations of each symbol to produce dramatic images such as the one at the top of this post — entrancing visual surveys of various ‘and’-signs that reveal that the “average” ampersand or plus sign is anything but.

Out of this orderly chaos Rebecca created three new ‘and’-symbols, codifying the handwritten forms she had collected into glyphs designed to be compatible with the ubiquitous Helvetica typeface. (You can see them below.) As intriguing as Rebecca’s new marks are, however, I am duty bound to write the same thing I often have to write in these circumstances: these new marks of punctuation have so far failed to make themselves felt in mainstream writing. But while this is, sadly, par for the course in such cases, I think there’s a deeper point to be made. The thing that stuck with me after looking through the messy, very human symbols that Rebecca catalogued along the way to creating her trio of new ‘and’-signs is that we in danger of losing the calligraphic Brownian motion that helped form our alphabet in the first place. In place of the divergent handwritten scripts of an entire species’ worth of letter-writers and note-takers we are increasingly reliant on digital typefaces and emoticons designed and curated by a comparative handful of interested parties — type designers, software companies, and, not least, the Unicode Consortium, which acts as guardian of essentially all the characters that might appear on a computer screen. It is as though we’ve abandoned evolution in favour of intelligent design.

Rebecca Kirch's new 'and'-signs.  (Image © Rebecca Kirch.)

Rebecca Kirch’s new ‘and’-signs. (Image © Rebecca Kirch.)

Still, though, given that the Unicode Consortium is still willing to consider new characters for inclusion in the all-important Unicode standard, things can’t be all that bad, can they? In their own words:

For new characters, [submitters should] provide images clearly showing the characters in use, with their glyph circled or clearly identified, along with a caption that describes the character and the source of the image.

Show us enough examples of a new mark in use, they say, and we’ll consider it. And there are, obviously, many people who still primarily write by hand who might yet invent a new mark, whether deliberately or accidentally, when an existing one is too time-consuming or awkward to write. But are there enough of them? For me at least it has been a long time since I put pen to paper to write anything longer that a to-do list, and I suspect I am not unusual in this respect. All my work ultimately ends up in electronic form, whether for a book or this blog (I daresay much of yours does too, whatever your profession or favoured hobby happens to be), and I find it easiest to stay within the digital realm from start to finish.

The problem with this is that we will, at some point, simply run out of new characters to be sent off to the Unicode Consortium for their stamp of approval. It feels like the critical mass of writers required for a new mark of punctuation to appear in any sort of organic way — the number of pens that must be put to paper on a daily basis to create a credible new ‘#’, ‘@’, or ‘&’ — is ebbing away, if it has not already been lost. Put simply, if we confine ourselves to writing only with our computers and smartphones, the spontaneity of creating new letters and symbols is lost to us. Has the Unicode Consortium approved its last truly novel handwritten character, I wonder?

So, um. This is all a little heavy, and it is certainly not where I expected to end up after pondering Jeremy, Jamsheed, and Rebecca’s handwritten plus signs. But here I am nevertheless. So I would ask of any type designers, calligraphers, or punctuational innovators who are reading this: what do you think? Is it still possible for a new mark of punctuation to come out of the hustle and bustle of everyday handwriting? Is there still hope for an accidental ampersand or a hurried octothorpe to come about and to spread organically, without a deliberate act of creation or promotion? Answers on a postcard, or, preferably, in the comments below!

You can see more of Rebecca’s work at tingedesign.com. Many thanks to her for supplying a copy of her thesis!

Miscellany № 56: an octothorpean Christmas

We need to talk about the octothorpe — primarily because everyone else is talking about it too. The past couple of months have see the ‘#’ dusted off, dressed up in its party clothes, and presented to the world at large in a variety of articles, videos, and radio programmes. But the octothorpe’s current renaissance does not stop there; by means of diligent detective work I have determined that it is now possible to experience the #-symbol with every human sense. I mean it: you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste the octothorpe if you so desire. How, you ask? Let me tell you.
We start with a treat for your ears. Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible has long been a favourite of mine. If you’ve never listened before, 99% Invisible is “a tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” Each episode is a short but in-depth examination of some quirky piece of design or history — the lightbulb in a Californian fire station that has been burning since 1901; the surprisingly involved world of flag design; and many others — and I was, frankly, giddy to be asked to participate in a new instalment about the history of the octothorpe.

After some to-ing and fro-ing via email, I ended up talking with producer Avery Trufelman over the phone a few weeks ago, and the completed episode (entitled, simply, “Octothorpe”) aired last week. You can read a transcript and take a look at some related images at the 99% Invisible website, but I heartily recommend that you listen to the podcast itself first — not for me, although I am in there, but instead to get the story of the word ‘octothorpe’ straight from the two men most responsible for its current fame and its current name. Doug Kerr and Lorne Asplund, engineers at Bell Labs during the creation of the Touch-Tone telephone, were, respectively, the architects of the #-symbol’s placement on the telephone keypad and its later christening as the ‘octothorpe’, and Avery chatted to them about their parts in the whole thing. I’d already been lucky enough to correspond with Doug while writing my original posts on the subject, but it was still a privilege to hear him explain the story aloud.

All in all, it was a pleasure to help out and to listen to the finished product, and I hope that you enjoy listening to it too.

Next, feast your eyes on this video from Hank Green, co-founder of online clothing store DFTBA and an enthusiastic vlogger to boot:

Shady Characters readers will already be familiar with much of what Hank says, but his “symbolistic journey” through the creation and naming of the octothorpe is still worth watching.

As a bonus, here’s another video examination of the history of the ‘#’, this time from The Guardian’s Ollie Peart. Be warned: there is some strong language in there, allied to Peart’s ascerbically witty commentary on the subject of the ‘#’. Watch at your own risk!

Next up, we get interactive in more ways than one. Over at Kickstarter, the intrepid duo of Ben Gomori and Jessica Riches are trying to get their project to built a keyboard consisting of a single ‘#’ key off the ground.

The HashKey by Ben Gomori, currently being kickstarted. (Image courtesy of Ben Gomori.)

The HashKey, currently on Kickstarter. Image courtesy of Ben Gomori.)

With twenty-three hours to go at the time of writing, Gomori and Riches are still a daunting £12,500 short of their funding goal. The window to get your own HashKey is rapidly closing — get your pledge in now if you’d like to see them succeed!

So: sight, sound and touch are now taken care of. On to taste and smell, if you can believe it.

In its role as symbol for a pound in weight, the octothorpe is a natural fit for recipe writers. It is terse and visually unique, and unlikely to be mistaken for any other similar symbol. And so, when Marissa Nicosia, a visiting professor of English at Scripps College, took to Twitter to ask what the following symbol was, the answer was immediate and unanimous: this scribbled mark is the pound sign, or octothorpe, caught midway between its earlier ‘lb’ and later ‘#’ forms.

<cite>The delights for ladys : to adorne there persons beautyes stillyris banquits perfumes [and] wators</cite>, a recipe book written in 1655.

The delights for ladys : to adorne there persons beautyes stillyris banquits perfumes [and] wators, a recipe book written in 1655. (Image courtesy of Penn Libraries.)

Taken from a 1655 recipe book entitled The delights for ladys : to adorne there persons beautyes stillyris banquits perfumes [and] wators, this pseudo-octothorpe would have been written a scant few years after the birth of Isaac Newton, a man who, as we have seen before, was fond of a handwritten pound sign himself.

The seventeenth-century recipe from which this octothorpe is taken describes how to make macarons, and the complete recipe is available to view (and perhaps to try out) at Penn Libraries’ web site. But if you consider delicate, delicious macarons to be too damned refined for their own good, how about some pre-fried, oven-cooked potato “shapes” in the form of the octothorpe and other zeitgeisty marks? I present to you Birds Eye “Mashtags”, and I have eaten them so that you don’t have to.


Birds Eye “Mashtags”: “PREFRIED POTATO SHAPES MADE WITH FRESHLY MASHED POTATOES”. (Image, and ALL CAPS, courtesy of Birds Eye.)

“It’s Twitter, for your mouth!” as Christopher Hooton described Mashtags in The Independent, and if that is the case then Twitter tastes a lot like warmed-over, carry-out chips eaten the morning after the night before. The less said about the smell, the better.
And there you have it! The octothorpe in five senses. That’s it from me for 2014 — thank you all for reading throughout the year, for the many insightful and entertaining comments, and, well, for buying the book! Have a great Christmas and New Year, and see you all in 2015.