A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 5

Of late I’ve been doing some research for the upcoming Shady Characters book, and as such I’ve been investigating the histories of some characters other than those already covered here. In particular, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the hyphen, or ‘-’: this simple bar has, through its role in hyphenation and justification, exerted a stubbornly persistent influence on typesetting and printing ever since Gutenberg’s famed 42-line bible was published in the late 1450s. I will, of course, go into much more detail in the book, but if you’re interested in the subject of printing I’d heartily recommend John Man’s excellent, readable history of Gutenberg and his invention.

Also related to printing, and especially its venerable, hand-set form, Danny Cooke’s short but sweet video on the subject — named “Upside Down, Left to Right” for the appearance of typeset letters bound in their forme, ready to be printed — is more than worth a few minutes of your time. And, as a bonus, the pilcrow makes a guest appearance around 4:58.


The interrobang is fifty years old this year, as noted by Alex Jay of the blog Tenth Letter of the Alphabet, and in honour of this anniversary Alex delves into the life and times of its creator, Martin K. Speckter. Along with some contemporary newspaper articles reporting the character’s creation, Alex has unearthed some incredible images of the interrobang as drawn by Richard Isbell for inclusion in his Americana typeface, providing an intimate look at the character as it wound its way from conception to moveable type.

4 comments on “Miscellany № 5

  1. Comment posted by Scott Zaboem on

    I am a huge fan of punctuation, and the hyphen is a favorite of mine. The dash is my all-time favorite, but the hyphen is more often used in my own composition. It’s heartening for me to see the hard-working hy-guy getting some attention. I am very much looking forward to your book, Keith.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Scott — thanks for the comment! I hope I can do the hyphen justice, and if there’s anything in particular you’d like to see discussed in the book then please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

    2. Comment posted by Leonardo Boiko on

      Ooh, discuss the Unicode set of hyphens! There’s the hyphen and minus and hyphen-minus and the shy (soft hyphen) and non-breaking hyphen, the hyphen bullet (not to be confused with the hyphenation point (related to the interpunct family of hovering dots)), and all that distinct from the en-dash and em-dash and figure dash and dialogue dash, and that’s not even touching on exotics like the Mongolian Todo soft hyphen, the yentamna, the double oblique hyphen or the Katakana double hyphen or the hyphen-with-umlaut. Hyphens, hyphens, it’s full of hyphens.

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Leonardo,

      The proliferation of Unicode hyphens and dashes will definitely be getting some attention in the book. I only discovered the figure dash recently myself, but its sheer specificity is both charming and alarming in equal measure. Also, the hyphen-minus is a great example of what happens when you squeeze a character set until the pips squeak — neither hyphens nor minus signs have been getting their dues on the computer keyboard for the last half-century.

      Thanks for the comment!

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