Ironics notwithstanding, the irony mark lay dormant for much of the latter part of the 20th century. As had been the case with many other previously obscure marks of punctuation, however, the click-to-publish ease of the web well and truly resusitated its fortunes: more new irony marks appeared in the decade from 2001 to 2010 than in any period before.
Ironically enough, the first digital irony mark was not intended to punctuate irony in a general sense but instead its laser-guided offspring, sarcasm.1 Observing that written sarcasm was chronically misinterpreted as sincerity in online interactions, the blogger Tara Liloia posted an article in 2001 that purported to solve the problem. In “The Sarcasm Mark”, she wrote that:
What I am proposing is a punctuation mark that clears up all confusion about sarcastic remarks for the reader. The closest thing to a sarcasm mark is the winking smiley—and he isn’t really a professional tool. You can’t write a missive to a business associate with little cutesy ASCII faces in it. It’s just not done. […] My solution is the tilde. ~2
As Liloia explained, the closest thing at that point to an irony or sarcasm mark was the “winking smiley” —
;-) — an ‘emoticon’, or combination of ASCII characters* that suggest a particular facial expression. Emoticons had been part of internet language since the days of the ARPANET,† when a joke about a fake mercury spill posted to a Carnegie Mellon University digital message board had been mistaken for a genuine safety warning. The denizens of the message board cast about for a means to distinguish humorous posts from more serious content, and the happy- and sad-face smileys —
:-( respectively — were the enduring result.4 Though common in online communication, smileys carried an inherent informality that excluded them from use as proper punctuation.
Liloia’s proposal, to employ the tilde as a ‘professional’ alternative to the winking smiley, was notable for its convenience. In contrast to Hervé Bazin’s psi-like creation, which had to be specially cut for Plumons l’oiseau, the tilde was common to most typefaces and hence could be typeset without difficulty. Also, unlike John Wilkins’ inverted exclamation point and Alcanter de Brahm’s reversed question mark, it was readily found and typed on most standard keyboards. Liloia explained that in its new role as a sarcasm mark, the tilde was to be used at the end of a sentence:
Why, The Onion [a satirical university newspaper] alone would use hundreds of sarcasm marks each day. Man, the Onion is one great newspaper~ Did you catch that? It was a test sarcasm mark—it worked, didn’t it? You knew I was being sarcastic.2
The tilde as sarcasm mark did find some limited use in instant messaging (though it also has a variety of alternative, contradictory meanings in this context5), but perhaps the most important aspect of Liloia’s article was that it articulated a need — seemingly peculiar to the Internet — to demarcate and regulate sarcasm. Whereas literary authors and journalists had once sought to clarify the use of irony, the rapid-fire, anonymous discourse of the Internet inevitably crystallised that irony into outright sarcasm.‡
Given Liloia’s nod to The Onion, it seems appropriate that the next call for a dedicated sarcasm mark came from a former Onion contributor. In a 2004 article penned for the online magazine Slate, Josh Greenman wrote:
The English language must evolve. Not with emoticons or lol or brb or l8r or GRATUITOUS all caps used for emphasis, not with Spanglish or bumbling Bushisms or even cryptic Kerryisms. We don’t need more quotation marks that “hedge” or try to make the same “old” thing sound “fresh.” What we need is an honest effort to incorporate the way we live today. My fellow Americans, we need to embrace a new punctuation mark–one that embraces the irony and edge of contemporary conversation and clarifies rather than condenses or confuses.
It is time for the adoption of the sarcasm point.7
Through his work for the relentlessly sarcastic Onion, Greenman surely had greater experience than most of the “irony and edge of contemporary conversation”. His article was a polemical call to arms displaying the same fervour and enthusiasm found in Martin Speckter’s interrobang manifesto of thirty-six years earlier8 — shot through, of course, with the rich vein of irony that had become de rigeur in irony and sarcasm mark proposals. The title of his article, boldly showing off his newly minted ‘sarcasm point’, said it all: “A Giant Step Forward for Punctuation¡”
Though Greenman’s essay was intended as a commentary on the culture of the day rather than a genuine attempt to introduce a new mark of punctuation, his choice of the inverted exclamation mark was a neat touch, designed to signal a reversal of the sincerity implied by its normally-orientated counterpart.9 The inverted exclamation point as irony mark exerted a strong pull: Greenman’s use of this glyph mirrored not only John Wilkins’ 17th century effort but also another contemporary use of ‘¡’ to signal sarcasm.
Five years before Greenman’s article, a group of academics presented a paper to the 15th International Unicode Conference in San Jose, California, with the informative but turgid title “A Roadmap to the Extension of the Ethiopic Writing System Standard Under Unicode and ISO-10646”. Unicode is the de facto successor to ASCII, defining more than 109,000 characters taken from over 90 scripts, ancient and modern alike, including Latin, Arabic, Greek, Cyrillic, Japanese, Chinese, cuneiform and many more.10 For a character to be included in Unicode is to have its mainstream use acknowledged,§ and so Asteraye Tsigie, Daniel Yacob et al sought to have a number of Ethiopian colloquialisms codified within this globally accepted standard. Documenting the use of one such character, they wrote:
- Ethiopian Sarcasm Mark “Temherte Slaq”
- Graphically indistinguishable from U+00A1|| (¡) Temherte Slaq differs in semantic use in Ethiopia. Temherte Slaq will come at the end of a sentence (vs at the beginning in Spanish use) and is used to indicate an unreal phrase, often sarcastical in editorial cartoons. Temherte Slaq is also important in children’s literature and in poetic use.11
Evidently, the imperative to punctuate irony and sarcasm does not respect linguistic boundaries.
The coincidence here is striking: three separate uses of ‘¡’ to notify the reader of irony in two different languages and spanning four centuries. Josh Greenman claims never to have encountered either the temherte slaq or John Wilkin’s irony mark,9 but there is clearly an attraction to appropriating existing marks of punctuation, and, subject to some mild tweaking of meaning or appearance, using them in entirely new contexts. This can also be seen in the reversed (and lightly modified) question marks proposed by Henry Denham and Alcanter de Brahm. Despite the cosy familiarity of the marks that result from this particular method of creation, none of them have yet succeeded. The tilde and inverted exclamation point join the long list of irony marks championed by one writer and roundly ignored by all the rest, and the temherte slaq forlornly awaits the Unicode Consortium’s seal of approval.
As if acknowledging the pitfalls inherent in suggesting any new mark of punctuation, the typographer Choz Cunningham hedged his bets when putting forward his own proposal in 2006. His so-called ‘snark’ could be used to imply sarcasm or irony, was composed of two easily-typed, standard characters, and embraced and extended an existing sarcasm mark for good measure.
Just as Martin Speckter had stewarded the creation of the interrobang through a dialogue with the readers of Type Talks magazine, the snark came about after a similarly collaborative design process: the online community at typophile.com hosted a lively debate covering all aspects of the character, from the history and usage of irony and sarcasm marks to putative designs of the new mark.12 As Cunningham’s dedicated website (thesnark.org) describes,
The most eloquent solution was the tilde. Sitting there, dormant since the 1960s, it has lacked a popular or mainstream purpose despite being included on virtually all computer keyboards. Tara Liloia, an early blogger, proposed making sarcasm clearer by ending a sentence with it. […] The classic irony mark and the sarcasm tilde were merged. Plain and stylized forms were explored. The Snark was born!13
And giving an example, he wrote:
A snark is very simple. At the end of the sentence where you want to finish with the mark, add a ~ (tilde) after the . (period).14
As well as the simple pairing of a full stop and a tilde (‘.~’), Cunningham described an alternative form for the snark where the two characters were kerned more closely to yield a single glyph (‘.~ ’).
Unfortunately, as easy as it is to publish a blog entry, post on a forum, or create a website, it is no easier to successfully promote a new mark of punctuation on the Internet than it was during the days of newsprint and hot metal type, and the snark was no exception. If anything, the thoroughness of Cunningham’s promotional efforts belied the difference between the snark and its predecessors: in place of the arch humour that had distinguished Liloia and Greenman’s short, sharp articles, thesnark.org was comprehensive and deadpan. After a first flush of enthusiasm, thesnark.org sank into that limbo specific to abandoned websites, where the ever-receding date on each page counts the months and years since its last update.¶
Hot on the heels of Cunningham’s snark came yet another new glyph, this time taking a detour from the solely digital nature of its contemporaries. The symbol designed by the Dutch type foundry Underware was a return to type in more ways than one: it denoted irony rather than sarcasm; it was rooted in traditional literary culture in the same way as Alcanter de Brahm and Hervé Bazin; and it embraced the throw-away nature of previous marks such as Josh Greenman’s sarcasm point.
Each year the Boekenbal, the gala opening of the Netherlands’ annual book festival, has a particular theme. In March 2007 the theme was ‘In Praise of Folly — Jest, Irony and Satire’,15 and that year saw the unveiling of Underware’s ironieteken, a zig-zag exclamation mark specially commissioned to mark the occasion:
Despite the implicitly disposable nature of the mark, intended as it was solely to publicise that year’s Boekenbal, Underware’s Bas Jacobs took his commission seriously. His simple adaptation of the exclamation mark was designed to be easily written by hand, and he considered that:
A simple form is essential to give it a chance to be a success, in contradiction to the interrobang for example. And it has to look like it always existed, not too constructed or rational, but similar like existing punctuation marks.15
Jacobs’ understated ironieteken was launched in a blaze of publicity: presented at the Boekenbal by the Minister of Culture to a packed house of prominent Dutch authors, the following day it featured in a full-page advertisement in the national newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Underware made the mark freely available by adding it to a number of fonts available for download through their website. As a result, the mark attracted a great deal of comment16 and might even have gained wider notice had not some commentators noted that two ironieteken placed in a row bore an unfortunate resemblance to the insignia of the infamous Nazi SS.17 As it was, the ripples caused by the ironieteken within the Dutch literary sphere did not travel far outside it, and thus far the mark remains largely a typographic curio.
When even a seasoned type foundry like Underware can fall foul of such unintended consequences, it might be concluded that attempting to design a credible irony or sarcasm mark is not for the typographically inexperienced. This did not deter the father and son team of Paul and Douglas J. Sak, of Shelby Township, Michigan — respectively an engineer and an accountant18 by trade — from not only designing a new sarcasm mark but also patenting its design and charging for the privilege of using it.
Launched in January 2010, the case for the ‘SarcMark’, as the Saks called it, was couched in much the same terms as previous marks:
With the spoken word, we use our tone, inflection and volume to question, exclaim and convey our feelings. The written word has question marks and exclamation points to document those thoughts, BUT sarcasm has NOTHING! In today’s world with increasing commentary, debate and rhetoric, what better time could there be than NOW, to ensure that no sarcastic message, comment or opinion is left behind[.] Equal Rights for Sarcasm – Use the SarcMark19
Resembling an ‘@’ or a ‘6’ with a point in the middle, the SarcMark was intended to be of roughly similar dimensions to existing glyphs, and included a point because of its presence in other terminal punctuation marks20 such as ‘!’, ‘?’ and ‘.’. It was, like Underware’s ironieteken, made available for download in a digital font; unlike Underware’s mark, though, this font came at a price. $1.99 bought the right to use the SarcMark for non-commercial purposes, with business users directed to contact the Saks directly.
It is safe to say that the creators and supporters of other irony and sarcasm marks were not amused. Or perhaps they were.
Initial news reports of the character’s creation were respectfully factual (“Sarcasm punctuation mark aims to put an end to email confusion” said The Daily Telegraph;21 “Hitting the mark with sarcasm” wrote The Toronto Star18), but as the mark became more widely reported, the cynics waded in with fists flying. Almost every aspect of the SarcMark succeeded in riling one commentator or another. Its visual design was flawed, as the gadget and electronics website Gizmodo Australia opined in an article that started as it meant to go on:
- SarcMark: For When You’re Not Smart Enough To Express Sarcasm Online
- […] For $US1.99 you get to download the symbol, which looks like an inverted foetus, and use it to illustrate your fantastic control over the English language every time you go online (insert Sarcmark).22
Others, echoing the hoary criticism that irony marks were unnecessary in the first place, argued that it is the writer’s duty to convey sarcasm well or to avoid it entirely. Tom Meltzer of The Guardian covered the creation of the mark in a story written entirely in the sarcastic register, and concluded tartly:
The real breakthrough of Sarcasm, Inc is the realisation that, despite having used sarcasm and irony in the written word for hundreds of years, humans are simply too stupid to consistently recognise when someone has said the opposite of what they mean. The SarcMark solves that problem, and you can download it as a font for the reasonable price of $1.99 (£1.20). Our prayers are answered.23
Still others seized on its attempt to put a price on a punctuation mark, accusing the Saks of a cynical attempt to monetize free speech. Josh Greenman himself weighed in with a lengthy column published by his new paper, the New York Daily News, taking umbrage at the idea:
[T]rademarking a punctuation mark – trying to own the very stuff of thought – is like patenting a DNA strand. It’s messing with the very stuff of life. Get out of my head, evil corporate overlords.24
Nor was the backlash confined to opinion pieces. A scant month after the first SarcMark press releases had been sent out, another front was opened in the form of the ‘Open Sarcasm’ movement, a mock-revolutionary website calling for the SarcMark to be blacklisted in favour of the tried and tested inverted exclamation mark, or temherte slaq. Affecting a militant stance against the ‘greedy capitalists of Sarcasm, Inc.’, the site declared:
A spectre is haunting the internet—the spectre of Open Sarcasm.
Of late, certain capitalist forces have brought forth onto the internet the idea that sarcasmists everywhere must license and download their proprietary new “punctuation”—called the “SarcMark”®—in order to clarify sarcasm in their writing.
A growing chorus of voices has joined together to decry this idea. It is high time that Open Sarcasmists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Open Sarcasm with a manifesto of the punctuation itself. […]
SARCASMISTS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!25
The rapid appearance of an entire website dedicated to the ‘forcible overthrow’ of the SarcMark was the very embodiment of internet activism: a deadly serious message inveighing against the rise of capitalism over collectivism; proprietary over open standards; intellectual property over free speech; and all delivered with a healthy undercurrent of knowing humour.
All this, though, is perhaps to miss the point. Despite the righteous fury levelled at it from all quarters, the SarcMark had already succeeded in doing what no punctuation mark since the interrobang had done: it broke into the rarefied atmosphere of the mainstream media. Which other new mark of punctuation could claim to have received coverage in the New York Daily News, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and at ABC News?20 The most reviled sarcasm mark of all may yet prove to have been the turning point in the irony mark’s long history of distinguished failure.
- “sarcasm,” Oxford Dictionaries Online, 2011. ↩︎
- T. Liloia, “The Sarcasm Mark,” Liloia.com, 2001. ↩︎
- B. Danet, “ASCII Art and Its Antecedents,” in Cyberpl@y: communicating online, Berg, 2001, p. 194+. ↩︎
- T. A. Press, “Digital ‘smiley face’ turns 25,” msnbc.com, 2007. ↩︎
- “tilde,” Urban Dictionary, 2011. ↩︎
- “Sarcasm On the Internet,” EndofWeb, 2010. ↩︎
- J. Greenman, “A Giant Step Forward for Punctuation¡,” Slate, 2004. ↩︎
- M. K. Speckter, “Interrobang,” Type Talks, iss. Nov-Dec, p. 17+, 1968. ↩︎
- J. Greenman, “Telephone interview.” Keith Houston, 2009. ↩︎
- “Code Charts – Scripts,” The Unicode Consortium, 2011. ↩︎
- A. Tsigie, B. Beyene, D. Aberra, and D. Yacob, “A Roadmap to the Extension of the Ethiopic Writing System Standard Under Unicode and ISO-10646,” , 2008. ↩︎
- C. Cunningham, “Irony Mark???,” Typophile, 2006. ↩︎
- C. Cunningham, “The Snark » History,” thesnark.org, 2007. ↩︎
- C. Cunningham, “The Snark » Design,” thesnark.org, 2007. ↩︎
- B. Jacobs, “Irony mark, and the need for new punctuation marks.,” Underware.nl, 2007. ↩︎
- B. Jacobs, “Personal correspondence,” , 2011. ↩︎
- “Nieuw: het ironieteken,” Talk of the Town, 2007. ↩︎
- A. Gordon, “Hitting the mark with sarcasm.” Toronto: Toronto Star Newspapers Limited, 2010. ↩︎
- D. J. Sak and P. Sak, “SarcMark Info,” sarcmark.com, 2010. ↩︎
- K. M. Heussner, “Sarcasm Punctuation? Like We Really Need That,” ABC News, 2010. ↩︎
- M. Moore, “Sarcasm mark aims to put an end to email confusion.” London: Telegraph Media Group, 2010. ↩︎
- N. Broughall, “SarcMark: For When You’re Not Smart Enough To Express Sarcasm Online,” Gizmodo Australia, 2010. ↩︎
- T. Meltzer, “The rise of the SarcMark – oh, how brilliant.” London: Guardian News and Media, 2010. ↩︎
- J. Greenman, “Sarcastic people of the world, unite: In the name of insincerity, take down the SarcMark,” New York Daily News, 2010. ↩︎
- “Open Sarcasm Manifesto,” Open Sarcasm, 2010. ↩︎
ASCII, the American Standard Code for Information Interchange, has been previously discussed on Shady Characters and is synonymous with the
fixed-width typefacesoften used to compose emoticons and other ‘ASCII art’.3 ↩︎
- See The @-symbol, part 1 for a brief history of the ARPANET. ↩︎
- The ongoing quest to denote online sarcasm was acknowledged by none other than the W3C, the web standards organisation, in an exchange of tweets with designer Gianni Chiapetta:6
- Gianni Chiapetta (@gf3)
- Proposed HTML 5 tag: <sarcasm>. To help clear up some online misunderstandings. (@w3c am I right?)
- W3C Team (@w3c)
- @gf3, <sarcasm>you are right<sarcasm/>
- Martin Speckter would have been gratified to know that the interrobang has its own representation, or ‘code point’, within the Unicode standard. ↩︎
- Unicode characters are often written as a hexadecimal number, where each digit is represented by a number in the range 0-9 or a letter in the range A-F. ‘U+00A1’ indicates the Unicode character numbered A1, or 161 in decimal terms. ↩︎
- At the time of writing, thesnark.org has been replaced by a holding page stating that “The website you were trying to reach is temporarily unavailable.” ↩︎