A post from Shady Characters

Name that mark: the “approval curl”

The unnamed "approval curl" as used to mark homework or exams
The unnamed “approval curl”, as used to mark homework or exams. (Image courtesy of Bas Jacobs.)

Bas Jacobs of the European type foundry Underware wrote to Shady Characters with a question: what is this character? It is used to mark correct exam answers in the same way as a tick or check mark, but beyond that its name or derivation is not clear. Bas is no stranger to unusual symbols, being the creator of Underware’s lightning-bolt irony mark, but both he and I are stumped. Here are his thoughts thus far:

The approval curl was first used in the 19th century. With a growing bureaucracy, higher governments were approving documents for lower governments using this curl to notify that a document had been read. During the last decades the curl is mostly used in education, when teachers approve their students work. This happens from primary schools up to universities.

The geographic usage is very scattered. The curl is used on a daily basis in Holland, as well as Portugal, but in Belgium or France the sign is unknown. Probably there are more countries where the curl is being used, I would be curious to know which ones.

Historians don’t agree on its genesis. Most Dutch historians think the approval curl is a speedily written ‘G’ (from Goed or Gezien), while the Portuguese think it stands for a ‘C’ (from Correcto). But a look at the stroke of the pen tells me that both explanations are not very likely.

There’s hardly any documentation in old dictionaries or historical books on the genesis and history of the approval curl, probably because it’s a very practical character. It’s used without too much awareness and there is no extra symbolic value attached to it.

The approval curl doesn’t have a Unicode, which is very strange. Its usage can be compared to a ‘check mark’, with this difference that a check mark can also mean that something has just been seen, while the curl always means that something is approved. It currently even’t doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry, just nothing.

For me, the only thing that rings a bell is the Japanese marujirushi, or “O mark”, where a circle is used instead of a check or tick. I can imagine that a hastily-drawn circle could morph into the “approval curl”, but that’s only speculation. What do you think? Can any Shady Characters readers shed some light on this mark?


Update: Bas has pointed out another image of the “approval curl”, this time from the 1970s.


Update: Thanks for all your responses! There have been suggestions that the “approval curl” is a Norwegian or German ‘r’ for rett or richtig; that it’s a sloppily-drawn ‘X’, with a corresponding obelus (÷) or zero (0) symbol for ‘incorrect’; and that it’s a German or Dutch shorthand symbol. It seems to me that there’s an academic study of marking symbols just waiting to be undertaken!

22 comments on “Name that mark: the “approval curl”

  1. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    It’s not in Unicode because it was not in any existing character set and no one has made a proposal to include it. Does it appear in running text in the way that check marks sometimes do? Is it used as a decoration like a fleuron, or as a fancy bullet? Does it even have a printed form? If so, a proposal would be sensible.

  2. Comment posted by Brianary on

    Any chance it’s just an ‘X’ with a pen-drag across the top, from one leg to the other?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brianary — Przemysław Sakrajda has a similar suggestion over on Google+, and he suggests that a ‘0’ would have been used to indicate an incorrect answer.

  3. Comment posted by mekka blue on

    It has been (and probably still is) in widespread use in Austria. To me, it is a generic placeholder for a signature. I would not call it an approval sign though, since it does not necessarily mean that the person pencilling it on the paper agrees personally with the content. It signifies acknowledgment, no more, no less. And as for its origin, I suspect it comes from one or another shorthand system.

  4. Comment posted by Hiram on

    This is just a wild guess, but to me it looks like some sort of shorthand notation. More specifically, either Groote Shorthand or Deutsche Einheitskurzschrift (DEK), though given the timeframe, Groote is more likely.

  5. Comment posted by Sune Mølgaard on

    Origin could be “approval X”, writing the first line from the bottom and not lifting the pen fully. I, for one, have certainly made the upside-down version by accident on a number of occasions.

    In this system, the disapproval mark would be the minus sign, extended with one dot over and under it.

  6. Comment posted by Erik Bolstad on

    I am pretty sure the mark is just a small r. Bas’s 1970s mark is a very typical German/Scandinavian r.

    In Norway, teachers use a R or r for “rett” (means correct, same word as richtig in German), and most of my older teachers wrote something similar to the mark Bas posted on Twitter.

  7. Comment posted by Diane O'Donovan on

    I’ve never seen this mark before but something similar cropped up in recently, in relation to an isolated character added to a page and diagram in a fifteenth century manuscript.

    That manuscript came from a Jesuit library, and has an inscription which appears to be a ‘nihil obstat’ note.

    With that in mind, I had suggested the mark – which the blogger notes is the way ‘g’ was written in the later fifteenth century, in German hands, might signify ‘gesehen’ or something of that sort.

    I wonder if it isn’t the origin of the approval curl: the form for that ‘g’ having altered over time, or been altered in a way that would avoid confusion. The fifteenth-century mark is shown here:
    http://voynichanalysis.wordpress.com/2012/04/06/about-the-mark-on-f57v/

  8. Comment posted by Bas on

    I checked with some stenographers, and following the Groote system (the most used steno system in Holland), the approval curl would mean ‘a’ + ‘b’. So content-wise it doesn’t seem to be logical that the approval curl comes from steno.

    None of the stenographers I contacted heard about a theory that the approval curl came from stenography.

  9. Comment posted by Bas on

    And now we know what “Typographic wishful thinking” is:
    Dutch think it’s a ‘g’ from Goed
    Portuguese think it’s a ‘c’ from Correcto
    Norwegians think it’s a ‘r’ from Rett

  10. Comment posted by Friedrich Forssman on

    Having been brought up in Switzerland, près de la frontière franco-allemande, I’ve been told that the v-shaped sign widely used for “seen, correct” or even to check boxes derives from the french « vu », “seen”. It being used not only in francophone countries might strenghten the theory that the sign discussed is short for »richtig«, „rett“, “right”?

  11. Comment posted by Stroncis on

    In Lithuania it’s quite widespread, but i doubt if more than few know it’s true identity. Few teachers i asked, answered that it’s just inherited from other teachers.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Stroncis,

      Thanks for the comment. Your experience seems to be pretty much universal — most teachers recognise it, but it’s just part of the furniture; no-one remembers where it came from or what it means!

  12. Comment posted by Henrik Hjerppe on

    In Finnish schools correct answers in exams are (or at used to be, back in my days as a pupil) marked with something like a slanted obelus, or a sloppy 1/1. I’m not even sure on the meaning of this, but I always gathered it stands for “one out of one points” or such. Anyway, the position of the strokes in this curl do remind me of the shape of that slanted obelus, imagining one drawing the symbol without lifting the pen.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Henrik,

      Interesting! Another potential derivation for the symbol. Do you happen to have any images of the Finnish mark? I’m sure Bas would be very grateful to see them.

  13. Comment posted by Adam Rice on

    I’ve never seen a circle used as a check mark in Japanese. There’s a system of shapes used as rankings of “goodness” in Japanese that goes ╳ △ ◯ ◎ (batsu, sankaku, maru, nijumaru), meaning bad/OK/good/very good. You’d see these used on a product-comparison table, for instance.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Adam,

      When working with Japanese customers in my last job, we would occasionally be given quizzes with ‘◯’ and ‘╳’ representing correct and incorrect answers respectively, and it may be that these were simple translations of the concepts of maru and batsu. I hadn’t known of this sliding scale, though.

      Thanks for the comment!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Sid — thanks for the comment!

      Based on the shape of the x you link to, I might be inclined to agree, except that Xs tend to be used to indicate failure rather than success in most marking contexts. This is a vexing problem indeed!

  14. Comment posted by DHeadshot on

    I just thought I’d mention that we were taught to use that mark at school as a carpentry symbol for specifying a certain face of a piece of wood for a joint. I forget the exact details as I haven’t done woodwork since I left school over 8 years ago.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Interesting. This forum discussion says that the symbol is a cursive f (standing for “face”, presumably), although it looks subtly different from the “approval curl” above.

      Thanks for the comment!

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