Those innovators who have designed new typographic symbols make up an eclectic bunch. Interrobang creator Martin K. Speckter was an ad man by trade and a printer by temperament; Bas Jacobs, designer of the ironieteken, and Choz Cunningham, creator of the snark, are type designers; and Doug and Paul Sak of Sarcasm Inc., responsible for the much-maligned SarcMark©, are an accountant and engineer respectively.
To this list — and I never thought I’d write this — we can now add ‘restaurateur’.
The big story this week is the proposal by Paul Mathis, an Australian restaurant owner, to use the symbol ‘Ћ’ as an abbreviation for the word ‘the’. As reported on the website of Australian newspaper The Age,
“The word ‘and’ is only the fifth-most used word in English and it has its own symbol – the ampersand,” says Mathis. “Isn’t it time we accorded the same respect to ‘the’?” […] He has developed the typography – effectively an upper-case “T” and a lower-case “h” bunched together so they share the upright stem – and an app that puts it in everyone’s hand by allowing users to download an entirely new electronic keyboard complete not just with his symbol — which he pronounces “th” — but also a row of keys containing the 10 or 15 (depending on the version) most frequently typed words in English.1
Mathis’ invention (although more on that slippery term later) has made quite a splash, reminiscent of the ripples caused by the SarcMark back in 2010, with many national newspapers and prominent websites picking up the story.2345 Like the Saks, Mathis has covered all his bases: the ‘Ћ’ has its own website (thethe.co), a Twitter account (@thefortweeting) and a promotional YouTube video. Most interesting of all, though, is the suite of Android keyboard apps — developed, Mathis says, at a personal cost of around AUD$38,0002 — with which adventurous users may type the ‘Ћ’ with the greatest of ease.
To my mind, however, the ‘Ћ’ is not without its problems.
Let’s start with a pet peeve. The ampersand (&), to which Mathis compares the ‘Ћ’,2 is derived from a complete word: it is a ligature, albeit a highly stylised one, of the word et. It literally means ‘and’, embodying the word in its entirety. ‘Ћ’ on the other hand, is a ligature of the letters T and h — the e in ‘the’ is left out in the cold. When, as The Age reveals, Mathis pronounces his symbol as “th”,1 he gives voice to this fundamental problem: as often as I scan the symbol ‘Ћ’, my brain persists in rendering it as a stunted “th” sound.
Secondly, it turns out that ‘Ћ’ is not a new invention. Though Mathis insists that he created the symbol from scratch (Karl Quinn of The Age gives him the benefit of the doubt1), he has had the misfortune of alighting upon a design that is functionally identical to the uppercase Cyrillic letter tshe, used only in Serbian, and which represents the <ch> sound in, for example, “chew”.6 Properly speaking, then, ‘Ћ’ does not even represent a “th” sound. (If there is an upside to this unfortunate coincidence, it is that many computing devices can be made to display a ‘Ћ’ without any special effort. Mathis’ Android keyboards are necessary only to enter the character, not to render it.)
Lastly, en route to his final design of ‘Ћ’, Mathis considered and then rejected an existing character — one that, unlike the Cyrillic letter tshe, has exactly the sound he was looking for. The ‘thorn’, or þ, is an Old English letter representing a “th” sound, and was once commonly paired with a superscript e as an abbreviation for ‘the’ to yield ‘þe’.7 Interviewing Mathis for American college website The Airspace, Blake J. Graham wrote:
[Mathis] looked back to the Old English thorn letter (þ) and its variant þe, which was used to represent “the” during the middle ages. While it seemed a good starting point, the thorn wasn’t the answer for Mathis. “Even in ye olde days these symbols were difficult to interpret and eventually were lost in translation,” he told me. “[It doesn’t] look like ‘The.’8
The irony here is that when Mathis talks about “ye olde days”, he is invoking the ghost of the thorn itself. ‘Ye’, commonly used as an anachronistic form of ‘the’ (“Ye Olde Tea Shoppe” is the canonical example), exists only because the cases of blackletter type that early English printers brought over from the continent lacked the Old English þ. Printers turned to the y, its nearest visual equivalent, and the thorn’s fate was sealed.9 Like the tshe, the thorn is well-supported by modern computers; unlike the tshe, the modern thorn boasts a well-realised form that is visually compatible with the roman alphabet. Might Mathis have dismissed it out of hand?
Despite all this, I have to admire Paul Mathis’ chutzpah in launching a new symbol, especially one that represents a word used so frequently in written English. Will the ‘Ћ’ stick? I can’t see it happening. Will his many Melbourne restaurants see a sudden surge in customer numbers as a result of worldwide coverage of his creation? I imagine so!
In other news this week, Symmetry Magazine tells the backstory behind Scott Fahlman’s creation of the smiley at Carnegie Mellon University back in 1982. I’ve talked about this before on Shady Characters, but read Julianne Wyrick’s article for some great details on the circumstances surrounding Fahlman’s invention.
For those who just can’t wait for the hyphen and dash chapters in the Shady Characters book, David Sudweeks’ article at FontShop about the usage of the hyphen, en dash and em dash will whet your appetite.
And lastly, a certain book helps Jimmy Stamp at the Smithsonian Magazine’s Design Decoded blog decipher “The Origin of the Pilcrow, aka the Strange Paragraph Symbol”.
Thanks for reading!
- K. Quinn, “What Th? One man’s quest for a symbol solution,” The Age, 2013. ↩︎
- A. Souppouris, “If ‘and’ is &, why can’t ‘the’ be Ћ?,” The Verge, 2013. ↩︎
- C. Subramanian, “Why The Deserves a Symbol All Its Own,” Time NewsFeed, 2013. ↩︎
- A. Barrowclough, “What th? Aussie chef invents new letter for the alphabet,” The Times, 2013. ↩︎
- A. John, “Do We Really Need to Shorten the Word ‘The’?,” The Atlantic Wire, 2013. ↩︎
- “Tshe,” Wikipedia, 2013. ↩︎
- D. Scragg, “The foundation,” in A history of English spelling, Manchester [Eng.]: Manchester University Press, 1974, pp. 1-14. ↩︎
- B. J. Graham, “A New Symbol for a New Age: ‘The’ Gets Shrunk to ‘Ћ’,” The Airspace, 2013. ↩︎
- “Y,” in Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press, 2005. ↩︎