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.

Pilcrows and poker chips: an interview with Jim Ford

A pilcrow, hedera, ampersand and @-symbol from Jim Ford's Quire Sans. (Quire Sans™ is a trademark of Monotype Imaging Inc. and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions.)

A pilcrow, hedera, ampersand and @-symbol from Jim Ford’s Quire Sans. (Quire Sans™ is a trademark of Monotype Imaging Inc. and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions.)

Last month, you may remember, I featured an image of two manicules drawn by Eric Gill for Gill Sans but which never made it into the finished typeface. I lamented the fact that some shady characters just don’t get the love they deserve, citing the fact that Gill’s manicules still don’t exist in Gill Sans, even in its most modern digital incarnations.

By way of compensation, Monotype’s PR team got in touch to ask if I’d like to get a type designer’s perspective on such things — the perspective, specifically, of Jim Ford, the designer behind Monotype’s new Quire Sans typeface. Quire Sans is unusual in that Monotype has deliberately talked up its credentials with regard to pilcrows, fleurons, and other unusual marks, and so I was eager to hear how Jim approaches these characters at the fringes of the virtual type case. Here, then, are my questions and Jim’s answers, along with a smattering of shady characters drawn from Jim’s typefaces. Enjoy!

KH: What was the inspiration for Quire Sans?
JF: Well, Quire Sans is more intuitive than inspired. Throughout my career as a designer, I’ve always struggled with making a personal [graphic] identity, one that lasts anyway. And so it becomes time to make business cards or forms and you have to pick a typeface that works and represents you well. Easier said than done…especially if you’re a creator of typefaces and things. You don’t have a favorite typeface. Anyhow, for these purposes and others, I needed a dependable family for general use, one with discerning esthetic qualities as well.
The press materials for Quire Sans mention the inclusion of “pilcrow and fleuron symbols, unique to Quire Sans.” Did you pay more than the usual amount of attention to designing these lesser-used marks?

No, I approached these like I would with any other typeface — try to make everything count, sensitively, harmoniously. The significance of the ‘pilcrow’ and such, in Quire Sans, is that it visually represented the former brand names for the typefaces, and so care was take to make these sit well with the type.

As with many symbols in Quire Sans, the shapes, fitting and alignment had to work universally with upper and lowercase as well as small caps and the default old style figures. I use all these settings relatively, and often, so it’s convenient to have a typeface that accommodates all these preferences, ideally.

Manicules and a poker chip from Pokerface, Jim's playing card-themed typeface. The chip is not a standard Unicode character; instead, it replaces Unicode character 263b, or "black smiling face" (☻). (Pokerface™ is a trademark of Ascender.)

Manicules and a poker chip from Pokerface, Jim’s playing card-themed typeface. The chip is not a standard Unicode character; instead, it replaces Unicode character 263b, or “black smiling face” (☻). (Pokerface™ is a trademark of Ascender.)

Are there any marks of lesser-used punctuation or printer’s ornaments that you’d like to see more often? Have you evangelized any of these in your work, via Quire Sans or otherwise?

Yes, there are a handful of non-standard symbols that I try to include [and promote] in all my designs. One thing I often design thematically is the ‘.notdef’ character — ‘not defined’ rather, is the box you get when a font doesn’t contain a certain character. I see it as a place for humor and symbolism in type design…it’s the font equivalent to The Price Is Right “losing” horn.

Numero is a fashionable alternative to # and is a nice touch in editioning, packaging and collectibles. ‘℗’ the ‘published’ symbol — very few fonts have this, but it’s needed for publishing and nearly all music packaging. I like a double bar ‘||’, or capitulum, as an alternative to the ‘paragraph’ and bar, or just as an information/navigation separator. And of course, I’m a huge fan of artistic elements like manicules, decorative brackets, borders and ornaments. Unfortunately you don’t see people using these things much.

This year I’ve been infatuated with parens (parentheses — ed.) and brackets, among other things. They are one of the most difficult things to balance, so I’ve been consciously trying to strike that perfect balance. And explore their creative possibilities as well. My projects this year have been mostly serif typefaces, with an almost linear progression in concepts. A quest of sorts :)

Can we expect to see manicules or an interrobang in the next release?
Manicules, yes. I’ve included them in a handful of typefaces and have drawn them to compliment other people’s designs as well. I’ve drawn an interrobang or two, but I find it to be an impractical mark that doesn’t quite make a good-looking alternative to ‘?!’. I take care to see that these punctuation marks work together, standard. Like ct and st ligatures, I may have awed over these things as a young designer, but I’m more practical now. With most designs, I find it to be frivolous, making some of these things.

A pilcrow, skull and crossbones, and interrobang from Captain Quill. Jim explained that the skull & bones is mapped to Unicode's own skull-and-bones symbol (Unicode 2620, or ‘☠’), but that it is also encoded to the ‘notdefined’ character -- when a specified character is not available, a grinning skull will appear in its place. In addition, Jim said, "ALL CAPS setting was forbidden due to their swashbuckling nature. So if you tried to set all caps, the text would automatically be replaced with skull & bones. You’d have to turn off contextual alternates to get around this feature. I got away with this for a while, but I think that feature has been removed since then." (Captain Quill™ is a trademark of Ascender.)

A pilcrow, skull and crossbones, and interrobang from Captain Quill. Jim explained that the skull-and-bones is mapped directly to Unicode’s own skull-and-bones symbol (Unicode 2620, or ‘☠’), but that it is also used for the ‘notdefined’ character — when a specified character is not available, a ‘☠’ will appear in its place. In addition, Jim said, “in Captain Quill, ALL CAPS setting was forbidden due to their swashbuckling nature. So if you tried to set all caps, the text would automatically be replaced with skull & bones. You’d have to turn off contextual alternates [whereby a font’s author can substitute characters in defined circumstances — ed.] to get around this feature. I got away with this for a while, but I think that feature has been removed since then.” A shame! (Captain Quill™ is a trademark of Ascender.)

I must thank Jim for answering my questions and Monotype for facilitating our chat. If you’re interested in Quire Sans or any of Jim’s other typefaces, take a look at his portfolio on Fonts.com. And while you’re out and about on the web, why not help us save Facebook from itself and promote the irony mark at the same time? All signatures are gratefully received!

Miscellany № 54: Facebook doesn’t get satire. Let’s help it out.

Or rather: Facebook gets irony perfectly well, but its users don’t trust themselves to catch it.

Sam Machkovech of tech news site Ars Technica has discovered that certain news stories posted Facebook now come prefixed with the word “[Satire]”, square brackets and all. Machkovech determined that this happens to links in the set of “related articles” box presented to you, the Facebook user, when you click through to the original news article and then return to Facebook. Of course, it goes without saying that the tag is only applied to satirical articles — for now, it appears that only The Onion is being targeted — but this may yet prove to be the thin end of the wedge.

To illustrate how this works in real life, here’s one of The Onion’s headlines that Machkovech found had been tarred with the “[Satire]” brush:

[Satire] Police Officer Doesn’t See A Difference Between Black, Light-Skinned Black Suspects

The Onion article itself is here, in case you haven’t been already been turned off by that “[Satire]” carbuncle. Facebook explained to Ars Technica what was going on:

We are running a small test which shows the text ‘[Satire]’ in front of links to satirical articles in the related articles unit in News Feed. This is because we received feedback that people wanted a clearer way to distinguish satirical articles from others in these units.

In other words, readers simply do not trust themselves to catch written irony, even in a context — next to a link to The Onion, for instance — that clearly signals its ironic content. All this time I’ve laboured under the assumption that the parade of irony marks discussed here over the years have failed to gain traction because punctuating irony is fundamentally unnecessary; and all this time, it seems, I’ve been wrong.

What we have here is an opportunity. An opportunity to help Facebook’s irony-challenged users and to fundamentally change punctuation as we do it. Let us not suffer in silence as our news feeds are blighted by inelegant “[Satire]” tags: if ever there was a time and a place for an irony mark to succeed — any irony mark — this is it. The tilde (~) of the noughties; the evergreen inverted exclamation mark (¡); the newly-coined asterisk (*); Underware’s elegant zig-zag; the percontation mark (⸮) or the ψ-shaped point d’ironie: any one of these marks would be a better, more humane way to communicate a satirical headline to the irony-deficient.

To this end, I have started a petition on change.org asking Facebook to reconsider this blunt-force approach to irony. Join me, and let’s help Facebook and its users benefit from a better approach to ironic news posts!

Miscellany № 53: Dinner ampersand drinks

Are you thirsty? I'm thirsty. (Image courtesy of @Monotype on Twitter.)

Are you thirsty? I’m thirsty. (Image courtesy of @Monotype on Twitter.)

I don’t mind telling you: I could use a drink. Work on the The Book continues apace — if all goes according to plan, the manuscript will be delivered to Mr Brendan Curry by the end of this year and the book published by the end of 2015 — and my thoughts are turning to how I might celebrate its completion. A tasty beverage would hit the spot.

Punctuation-related cocktails have been on my mind since I came across today’s header image a few months back on the Twitter feed of Monotype, the type company. The “Type Ice Tea”, “Ampersand Fizz” and “Pilcrow Fashioned” were all on offer at the Design Week Awards in London back in May; and though I missed the boat on that particular conjunction of punctuation and alcoholic beverages, I console myself with the knowledge that these heady concoctions are really just rechristened versions of the Long Island Iced Tea, the French 77, and the Old Fashioned. What would really get the juices flowing is a cocktail with its roots in punctuation; something novel, and hitherto passed over by the cocktail cognoscenti, just as the marks discussed here have been unduly ignored over the years.

Something like the Ampersand Cocktail.

As J. K. Grence of the Phoenix New Times explains, this venerable drink was invented (or at least first recorded) at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel sometime before prohibition forced discerning drinkers underground. Its name apparently comes from the ampersand in the name of Martini & Rossi, the Italian drinks company that produces the sweet vermouth necessary to make the cocktail. Speaking of which, the Ampersand consists of equal measures of three constituent liquors — cognac & Old Tom gin & sweet vermouth — along with a dash of orange bitters, and it is simplicity itself to make. According to Mr Grence’s recipe, take the following ingredients:

  • ¾ ounce cognac
  • ¾ ounce Old Tom gin
  • ¾ ounce sweet vermouth
  • 1 or 2 dashes orange bitters

Stir these together with ice cubes until chilled, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, et voilà! Enjoy. I was excited to try out the Ampersand for myself, only to find that the Shady Characters drinks cabinet is currently absent any sweet vermouth.

How helpful, then, that I should discover not only that there is such a thing as artisanal vermouth, currently enjoying a renaissance in the USA, but that one of its proponents is a man named Karl Weichold who makes Interrobang Vermouth in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Karl provides a few recipes at the website for Interrobang Vermouth, and, given the symbol’s origins on Madison Avenue, it seems only fitting to share his “Interrobang Manhattan” with you. Take the following:

  • 2 parts rye whiskey
  • 1 part Interrobang Sweet Vermouth
  • 1 dash of Bitters

Mix together and shake with plenty of ice, then strain into a martini glass and garnish with a twist of lemon. This is, I grant you, nothing more than a conventional Manhattan made with Weichold’s own vermouth, but I find it hard to judge his recipe too harshly: it has the work “interrobang” in it, for heaven’s sake.

And if neither the Ampersand Cocktail nor the Interrobang Manhattan take your fancy, perhaps an Asterisk would be in order? Doug Ford at Cold Glass describes this variant on a cocktail called The Last Word as containing:

  • ¾ ounce brandy
  • ¾ ounce Green Chartreuse
  • ¾ ounce cherry liqueur
  • ¾ ounce lemon juice

To make an Ampersand, mix all its ingredients together and shake until cold, then strain twice into a chilled cocktail glass.

Taste tests of all these cocktails will be forthcoming — right around the time that I finish work on The Book, I imagine — and I will be sure to report back once my wits have returned afterwards. In the meantime, what punctuation-related cocktails have I missed? Let us know in the 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}
    }