A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 17

Manicule at Kings Cross station
A retro-appearing manicule points the way to the new entrance to Kings Cross station. (Photo by author.)

I visited London this weekend, continuing my niche campaign to explore the world of computer-to-Monotype interfaces. (If none of this makes any sense, take a look at my earlier post about the last working Monotype caster in Scotland.) Having seen Harry McIntosh’s system first-hand in Edinburgh, this time round I prevailed upon Phil Abel and Nick Gill of London’s Hand & Eye Letterpress to show me the system installed at their own workshop, of which much more in a future post.

On the way to catch the train home, I came across the billboard-sized manicule shown above, pointing the way to the new entrance at King’s Cross; this centuries-old mark is clearly in rude health. Not only that, but this larger than-life example takes a very clear (and quite correct) stand with regards to the King(’)s Cross apostrophe controversy: for now at least, the possessive apostrophe is in the ascendant.

Now, though, on with the show ☞


Unusual marks of punctuation got some much-needed PR a couple of weeks ago, courtesy of Adrienne Crezo of Mental Floss magazine. The contents of Adrienne’s list of “13 Little-Known Punctuation Marks We Should Be Using” will be not unfamiliar to readers of Shady Characters — the interrobang, SarcMark, irony mark all get mentions — but nonetheless, a number of other sites have picked it up and run with it, including The Week and Neatorama. Is a renaissance in the offing for unusual punctuation?


Having looked into the life and times of the humble ‘@’ key in fairly comprehensive detail, I enjoyed the New York Times’ short history of the ESC, or ‘escape’, key. It may not have the epic sweep of the @-symbol’s journey from Renaissance Spain to the birth of the Internet, but the ESC is surely as prevalent, if not used quite so regularly, as ‘@’. No sooner did I wonder if anyone has attempted a history of vestigial and endangered computer keys than I found a 2003 article at the Straight Dope taking a game stab at such a thing.


And, lastly, Shady Characters cropped up again in the Guardian’s Crossword Blog. A very pleasant surprise!

10 comments on “Miscellany № 17

  1. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    That NYT article is hopelessly confused and silly. It completely conflates the ESC code with the ESC key, and mixes up the standardization of the code back in 1963 with the creation of the key. I don’t know when programs started to use ESC to mean “escape the current program”, but certainly well into the PC era. In the TECO editor, which dates back to the early 1960s, the ESC code (triggered by the ESC key, or as it was then called, the ALTMODE key) indicated the end of a string; doubled, it meant “go ahead and execute this sequence of commands”.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John,

      I think the article’s confusion of an abstract code with its physical manifestation is probably forgiveable, no? I’m intrigued by the article’s suggestion that the code (or the key — see what I mean?) was originally used “as way for programmers to switch from one kind of code to another” — do you have any more detail on this use of the code? As a one-time programmer, I’d interested to hear exactly what is meant by that.

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. Comment posted by bob on

      In my not-entirely-misspent youth, I used the Teco editor (DEC’s adaptation, not the MIT version that served as the initial implementation language for Emacs). The gentleman who was kind enough to teach me had the endearing habit of verbalizing the ESC key as “dildo.” Thus, as noted by John Cowan, the end of any command string would be “double dildo.” All well and good in the (mostly) male confines of the lab, but rather embarrassing when moving to a more conventional office setting.

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Bob,

      Well, that’s one alias for ‘escape’ I hadn’t previously heard about…! Why on earth did he call it that?

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Comment posted by dave garbutt on

    it precedes DOS by a long way. It is part of standard ACII from mid 60’s — which means it was used before that. If remember right it was on the teletype keyboard, and tape punch — if not it came it with the (CRT) terminal.

    Dildo perhaps he was thinking of Tilde?

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Perhaps! Certainly, the tilde is immediately below the ESC key on US-International keyboards, if not others.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Comment posted by Patrick Reagh on

    120 characters‽

    Dear Keith, your book is a great antidote to my bedridden, feverish state. However, my thermometer went up a few degrees when I read on page 34 that the Monotype had the capacity for only 120 characters. I doubt you asked Harry McIntosh about this. He would have told you the 15 × 15 matrix case has a total of 225 positions. Enough for five alphabets (roman c/lc, italic c/lc, small caps, roman & italic figures, ligatures, spaces, and many other symbols, accents, &c.

    Unfortunately, Monotype never saw fit to cut a punch for the interrobang, or I could make a vast fortune selling fonts of them to the huge market that is about to develop.

    Many thanks for a fun and informative read.

    Pat Reagh

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Patrick — thank you for the comment, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the book!

      I must apologise for the Monotype gaffe. The figures given in the book for the respective capacities of Monotype matrices and Linotype magazines refer to very early versions of both devices, and I could have expanded on that point. I plan to publish a post detailing errata in the book at some point soon, and, assuming a second edition of the book comes along, I’ll update it there too.

      Thanks again!

  4. Comment posted by EricJjohnson on

    Greatly enjoying Shady Characters particularly the discussion of octothorp as a recent word & the legitimacy of ‘pound sign’.
    But I have to correct you in the asterisk department.*

    *pg. 114 Barry Bonds’ single season HR record is 73, not 71.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Eric — I’m glad you’re enjoying the book! Also, thank you for pointing out that error. I’m compiling a list of errata at the moment and I’ll add the correct baseball score to it.

Leave a comment

Required fields are marked *. Your email address will not be published.

Leave a blank line for a new paragraph. You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>