A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 8

Ray Tomlinson, the software engineer who propelled the the @-symbol from obscurity to ubiquity when he chose it for use in email addresses, has been named as one of the inaugural inductees of the Internet Hall of Fame. Mr Tomlinson is in good company: ex-Vice President Al Gore, honoured for his work in promoting Internet access, is among the first round of inductees, as is Vint Cerf, the co-creator of TCP/IP and, by extension, the modern Internet itself. It’s been a long time since Mr Tomlinson first sent an email to himself @ another computer, but I’m sure it’s been worth the wait.

In other @-symbol–related news, I came across this custom-made @-symbol ornament recently. The post in which it is mentioned is a year or so old, but it seemed appropriate to point it out in honour of Ray Tomlinson’s award!


I’ve mentioned the obelus, or division symbol (÷), once before on Shady Characters. Unfortunately, I can’t go into it in much detail (I’m keeping my powder dry for a chapter of the book in which I’ll be looking at the obelus and its partner in crime, the asterisk), but Drew Mackie has taken a look at the word and its associated symbol over on his blog Back of the Cereal Box. His series of posts on “strange and wonderful words” is well worth a look.


The novelist Will Self once declared that “[t]he colon is an umlaut waiting to jump”, and in the most tenuous of links, I’ve decided to use this as an excuse to feature a recent New Yorker blog article on the ‘diaeresis’, the umlaut-like pair of dots used to separate a double vowel into two syllables. The typical word processor will insert a diaeresis into “naïve” but leave “coördinate” sadly bereft, and the average English language computer keyboard is not over-stuffed with keys to reinstate it. The New Yorker, though, is rightly famed for its use of this mark where most other publications (and dictionaries) have long since abandoned it, and I for one hope that one day it can regain its preëminence.

14 comments on “Miscellany № 8

  1. Comment posted by Owen on

    The New Yorker article is interesting although I must say I would always go with ‘co-operate’ over ‘coöperate’ as I come across a lot of neologisms in the creative arts that employ a ‘co-’ or ‘inter-’ prefix. I find the hyphen more elegant and better for line lengths where text is set justified.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Owen — that’s an interesting point. The diaeresis is probably only technically necessary where a word is not a compound form, since the reader would likely recognise and pronounce such compounds appropriately.

      The problem then is that hyphens tend to either degenerate into spaces so that the compound is broken, or harden so that it fuses into a single word. I wonder how closely the New Yorker follows changes in spelling to hyphenated words? Do they apply a diaeresis to any compounds which have not historically used one?

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Comment posted by tz on

    Would adding two circumflexes atop the @ make it a “cat” sign?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Very droll, tz! Unfortunately, HTML and CSS conspire against my constructing such a c@ sign here.

    2. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

      I tried it with BabelMap. Not one of the few fonts I tried centers the dots over the @. A few (appropriately, IMHO, but probably unwittingly) try to center it over the a, colliding with the tail. [Your mileage may vary, since this depends on the Open Type tables in the font and how your operating system and applications handle them. It seems a lot of fonts (most?) don’t bother with combining diacriticals, and those that try, fail.]

    3. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

      I tried putting a diaeresis atop @. Looking back at TZ’s comment, I see he asked for two circumflexes – but AFAIK Unicode allows you only one. In an another BabelMap experiment, 2 or 3 tries with one circumflex looked a bit feline.

    4. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

      The one-eared–cat punctuation mark, known as the semicat. Would a semicat work as a biting sarcasm mark?

  3. Comment posted by Leonardo Boiko on

    Well naïve is different in that it’s a French word, and everyone knows foreign words are supposed to wear hats.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Indeed. ‘Naïve’ is a very stylish word.

  4. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    Where’s the problem? The c@̂̂t sign is easily created by writing “c@̂̂t”. How it looks depends on your browser’s rendering engine and the fonts you have available.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Ah, and therein lies the problem. Browsers are still a little finicky when it comes to combining diacritics and other more esoteric font features. “C@̂̂t” is a brave attempt, though!

    2. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

      But with one ear this is merely a semic@̂̂t. See my comments above.

  5. Comment posted by andrew wilson lambeth on

    if the w really is a double-u—in other words a vowel, only doubled—then there is one place it could do with taking a diaeresis, and that is that weird new word coworker, which i just can’t help reading as something to do with cows, possibly the female equivalent of a bullworker . i’ll try it here, to see if your post engine will accept it— co¨worker . no, didn’t work on the w . shame, the dots would put rather fetching cherries on top of the counter cones

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Andrew — let’s see if MS Word can help: “coẅorker”. How’s that?

      I suspect, sadly, that regardless of how fetching “coẅorker” looks, we’d have more luck arguing the case for “co-worker”.

      Thanks for the comment!

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