Miscellany № 50: interrobangs in space!

I exaggerate for effect. Although thanks to Martin von Wyss, an Australian geographer, cartographer and punctuation enthusiast, we’re on the cusp of interrobangs visible from space even if they aren’t technically in space. I came across a tweet of Martin’s a few weeks ago, and if you take a second to click on that link you’ll see exactly why I was keen to get in touch.

Martin has painted an interrobang on the roof of his house.

Martin von Wyss' rooftop interrobang. (Image courtesy of nearmap.)

Martin von Wyss’ rooftop interrobang. (Image courtesy of nearmap.)

I sent Martin a message to ask him why he had undertaken this noble task and his answer, to paraphrase George Mallory’s famous justification for tackling Mount Everest, was joyously simple: because he could. Martin writes:

Ever since Google Maps (or was it Mapquest?) came along with their free images in 2003(?), I’ve been conniving about orthophoto art. But it wasn’t until recently that I had roof access! And in the meantime I learned to love the interrobang.

As a cartographer, typography and fonts matter a great deal to me. In my work I usually end up using sans serif fonts that are legible at very small sizes and lend the map an air of impartiality. But I knew that no one would get a headache from reading one character in all of greater Melbourne’s roofs, so I went for an expressive serifed interrobang. Since I’m on Twitter and since they’ve chosen such a fine specimen for their logo, I used the logo of the State Library of NSW as my model when sketching out my character on the roof.

We used a pink chalk for the outlines on the metal deck and whatever paint it is we found in the garage for painting our character. An added benefit to the project is increasing our albedo!

Amazing. Martin’s house is both literally and metaphorically cooler as a result of his endeavour.

The von Wyss interrobang in progress. Martin's son does the honours. (Image courtesy of Martin von Wyss.)

The von Wyss interrobang in progress. Martin’s son does the honours. (Image courtesy of Martin von Wyss.)

Readers of the Shady Characters book will find that Martin’s interrobang is familiar; it does indeed mirror the one used by State Library of New South Wales, although that august institution took the conventional route of placing its emblem on its walls rather than its roof. (The NSW interrobang, coincidentally, was the product of Vince Frost of Frost Design, who explained the reasoning behind the logo to me back in 2011.)

The von Wyss interrobang at roof level. (Image courtesy of Martin von Wyss.)

The von Wyss interrobang at roof level. (Image courtesy of Martin von Wyss.)

The image at the top of the page comes courtesy of nearmap, an Australian company that transforms aerial photographs into images suitable for use in mapping. Martin tells me that he awaits the next overflight of a Google Maps satellite so that his rooftop interrobang will finally be imaged from space and available for all to see. Perhaps it’s time for a Google Earth Alphabet of unusual marks of punctuation.

I can’t thank Martin enough for posting his picture to Twitter and for all his help in preparing this post. Check out his website for Australian Wine Maps and more!

Reader Angus got in touch after my recent post about the “quasiquote” to explain that he has been using a mark of his own invention with a similar meaning. He sent in an image to illustrate his symbol, a “broken” quotation mark in contrast to the underlined quotation mark we saw last time, that he uses in written correspondence:

An alternative form of the quasiquote. (Image courtesy of Shady Characters reader Angus.)

An alternative form of the quasiquote. (Image courtesy of Shady Characters reader Angus.)

I must thank Angus for getting in touch and for sending in a custom-made demonstration of his mark. Have you come up with any alternatively renderings for marks discussed here? An alternate-universe interrobang, perhaps, or an improved ampersand? Let us know in the comments, or drop me a line via the Contact form!

Quasiquotes: too good to post only once

Did you catch last weekend’s post on the “quasiquote”? I sincerely hope so, because Ned Brooks and Sandra Bond helped me uncover the history of a truly interesting mark of punctuation, and one that sparked a flurry of comments.
For new readers, a quick reminder that you can follow Shady Characters on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Goodreads. If you prefer to kick it old school, you can subscribe to notifications of new posts via email (as ever, your email address will not be shared with any third parties) or RSS. Thanks for dropping by!

Miscellany № 49: introducing the quasiquote

The best thing about running Shady Characters, bar none, is when a reader alerts me to a genuinely novel punctuation mark. A symbol I haven’t seen before, perhaps, or one that fills a niche I hadn’t ever considered. Ned Brooks checked both these boxes when he posted to the Shady Characters Facebook page to tell me about the so-called quasiquote. I’ll let Ned introduce this fantastic mark of punctuation:

The interrobang was discussed on the Yahoo group for typewriter collectors, and it reminded me of another punctuation mark popular at one time in mimeographed science fiction fanzines – the quasiquote. This was made of the ‐ typed under the " and meant that the phrase quoted might be the sense rather that the exact words from some source.[1]

First, a bit of background. “Fanzines”, for the uninitiated, are self-published magazines produced by the fans of a particular hobby — science fiction, punk music or video games, to pick just a few — and are often characterised by a lo-fi approach to their printing and distribution. As Ned mentions, early ’zines were “mimeographed” — that is, they were produced using an early type of copying machine called a mimeograph. A master stencil of each page was produced by typing onto a sheet of wax paper and was then copied by the machine, which forced ink through the stencil and onto a blank sheet of paper.[2]

The use of typewriters to prepare mimeographic stencils made it easy to overstrike mistakes (the traditional fanzine approach was to do this with slashes — ‘/’ — rather than ‘X’s or dashes), or even to deliberately combine characters. “The interrobang was easily made with a back-space and over-type”, as Ned told me via email, which is remarkable in itself. But this quirk of typewriter operation also allowed the construction of the fabled quasiquote, where a hyphen and quotation mark were overstruck to produce something like "this", or 'this', and which encapsulated an abbreviated or paraphrased quotation rather a verbatim report of the speaker’s words.

Ned’s explanation of the quasiquote would have been intriguing enough by itself, but he outdid himself by sending me scans of two fanzine lexicons that described and demonstrated the quasiquote in action. Here, then, straight from the horse’s mouth, is the definition of the quasiquote as given by the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer, one of the founding fathers of fandom:[3]

Definition of the quasiquote as given in the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

Definition of the quasiquote as given in the 1944 Fancyclopedia, written by Jack Speer. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

And later, from the 1966 reprint of the 1955 Neofan’s Guide by one Bob Tucker, a fan who went on to become a professional writer in his own right:[4]

1956 definition of quasiquote by Bob Tucker, as given in his Neofan’s Guide. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

1956 definition of quasiquote by Bob Tucker, as given in his Neofan’s Guide. (Public domain image courtesy of Ned Brooks.)

Despite its novelty outside the fanzine community, the quasiquote was no flash in the pan. Attested as early as 1944 (and likely created even earlier), it is still used in some ’zines and has even lent its name to one: Londoner Sandra Bond published a science-fiction ’zine named QuasiQuote from 1999 to 2008,[5] adopting the name of the mark “because (to me) it evoked a nicely retro feel, as well as commemorating a typographical quirk I thought deserved to be remembered.” Ironically enough, as technology has advanced the quasiquote has become more difficult to type, and Sandra told me that “the quasiquote as used in QuasiQuote, the fanzine (i.e. this: -") was only in that form because unlike a manual typewriter where overstrikes were possible, I couldn’t put both the quote and the hyphen in one space in a word processor.”[6]

Where now, then, for the quasiquote? Graphically, there’s nothing to stop the quasiquote from appearing on computer screens everywhere. Modern word processors may lack a simple way to overstrike characters but they almost universally allow text to be struck out with a horizontal line; HTML, too, the language of the World Wide Web, allows text to be struck out in a similar manner. I dont know about you, but I think that these hacked-together quasiquotes look rather fetching.

It’s far more difficult to see how quasiquotes might fare as a regular mark of punctuation. They certainly have a neatly unambiguous function that is not already fulfilled by any other mark of punctuation; writers have been paraphrasing quotations since time immemorial, but either they do not trouble to tell their readers or they signpost their words with exculpatory statements such as “in other words”, or “words to that effect”. And unlike some novel marks of punctuation (I’m looking at you, SarcMark®) the quasiquote is not offensively weird to the eye. Even so, the lot of the newly-invented (or, if I may say so, newly-discovered) mark of punctuation is rarely an easy one. We all know how the interrobang fared — neither snuffed out entirely nor enshrined in common use — and the quasiquote will surely face just the same uphill struggle for acceptance. I, for one, will be rooting for it.

Thanks to Ned Brooks for getting in touch and for his scans, and to Sandra Bond for answering my questions. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and please leave a comment below if you’ve come across the quasiquote or any analogous mark in print!
  • [1] C. W. Brooks, “Personal correspondence.” Keith Houston, 2014. Bibtex

      author = {Brooks, Cuyler W},
      month = jun, publisher = {Keith Houston},
      title = {{Personal correspondence}},
      type = {Unpublished work},
      year = {2014}
  • [2] “Behind the Scenes: The Mimeograph,” in The Queensland Museum Network Blog. Queensland Museum Network, 2011. <http://blog.qm.qld.gov.au/2011/07/12/behind-the-scenes-2/> Bibtex

    @misc{QLD2014Mimeograph, booktitle = {The Queensland Museum Network Blog},
      month = jul, publisher = {Queensland Museum Network},
      title = {{Behind the Scenes: The Mimeograph}},
      url = {http://blog.qm.qld.gov.au/2011/07/12/behind-the-scenes-2/},
      urldate = {08/06/14},
      year = {2011}
  • [3] “Jack Speer,” in Fancyclopedia 3. <http://fancyclopedia.org/jack-speer> Bibtex

    @misc{JackSpeer2014, booktitle = {Fancyclopedia 3},
      title = {{Jack Speer}},
      url = {http://fancyclopedia.org/jack-speer},
      urldate = {08/06/14}
  • [4] “Tucker, Wilson,” in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 2014. <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/tucker_wilson> Bibtex

    @misc{TuckerWilson2014, booktitle = {The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction},
      month = apr, title = {{Tucker, Wilson}},
      url = {http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/tucker\_wilson},
      urldate = {08/06/14},
      year = {2014}
  • [5] “QuasiQuote,” in ZineWiki. 2013. <http://zinewiki.com/QuasiQuote> Bibtex

    @misc{QQ2014ZineWiki, booktitle = {ZineWiki},
      keywords = {Awry,Banana Wings,Bill Rotsler,DNQ,Destiny,Harry Warner,Horizons,Jr.,Mark Plummer,Oblong,Ploy,QuasiQuote},
      month = may, title = {{QuasiQuote}},
      url = {http://zinewiki.com/QuasiQuote},
      urldate = {08/06/14},
      year = {2013}
  • [6] S. Bond, “Personal correspondence.” Keith Houston, 2014. Bibtex

      author = {Bond, Sandra},
      month = jun, publisher = {Keith Houston},
      title = {{Personal correspondence}},
      type = {Unpublished work},
      year = {2014}

Miscellany № 48: a historical section

A true miscellany for your perusal this week! On with the show.
First, a punctuation story that self-destructed almost as soon as it appeared. In mid-April, Levi Stahl, a publicity manager at the University of Chicago Press, posted to his blog about “The first emoticon?”. Stahl had come across a familiar-looking pairing of ‘:)’ in a 1648 edition of a poem by Robert Herrick. The lines in question went as follows:

Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, (smiling yet:)
Tear me to tatters, yet I’ll be
Patient in my necessity.

A smiley!!11! Well, no. Within Days, Ben Zimmer of Slate’s excellent “Lexicon Valley” blog published a comprehensive treatment of this and other supposed historical emoticons, demonstrating that the “smileys” found in pre-20th century works are almost always attributable to the punctuation fashion of their times. Reverse Herrick’s ‘:’ and ‘)’ and suddenly things look a lot more conventional — and, frankly, a lot more believable. Much as it pains me to say it, perhaps it’s time to put the quest for the historical smiley on the back burner for a while…?

The section mark (§) doesn’t get a lot of attention these days. Is it too mundane, I wonder, too bogged down by its association with the dry corpora of legal rulings and governmental statutes? The German artist George Grosz, working in the febrile atmosphere of interwar Berlin, certainly thought so. Reader Philip Chastney emailed with a link to Grosz’s drawings for a 1928 play named The Good Soldier Švejk in which he co-opts the ‘§’ as an unsettling stand-in for the bureaucracy, rules and regulations of his city and country.

Make no mistake, these are striking, difficult images. In one, Grosz depicts a tree of section marks with corpses dangling from its branches; in another, a man is pursued and strangled by a flock of the same symbols. The question mark makes an appearance too, hovering atop a shocking, prescient heap of bones and skulls.

“[Grosz’s] drawings are not pleasant,” as Philip explained, “but then, neither was the world he saw about him.”

In slightly lighter news, readers Richard Taylor and Jason Black both pointed me in the direction of an article at The Guardian entitled Notation, notation, notation: a brief history of mathematical symbols. It’s written by Joseph Mazur, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Marlboro College, Vermont, and it delves into the evolution of mathematical symbols over the centuries. I encountered some of the sources cited by Professor Mazur while writing Shady Characters, and it’s a fascinating subject; Professor Mazur’s article is a great introduction to the history of mathematical notation, and his book, Enlightening Symbols: A Short History of Mathematical Notation and its Hidden Powers, is now firmly on my Christmas list!
Thanks to Philip, Richard and Jason for their contributions, and thank you all for reading! Please don’t hesitate to drop me a line with any punctuation news that you’d like to see featured here.

Miscellany № 47½: the creator speaks!

I’m very pleased to say that Michele Buchanan, owner of getthepoint.me and creator of its new marks of punctuation, got in touch this week to discuss her project. Her three new marks — the ironic or sarcastic asterisk (*), the equivocal tilde (~), and the happy double-parenthesis (‘))’) — sparked quite a discussion last time here at Shady Characters, and it’s great to have Michele add her voice to the debate.

I asked Michele a little about herself, and she was gracious in responding to my questions. She hails from Manitoba, Canada, and has worked as a graphic designer for “the better part of three decades”; she is a devoted Mac-user, a cinema fan, and an aficionado of robots — a set of interests that practically begs for a Venn diagram, does it not? getthepoint.me is a thesis project carried out for her MFA at Savannah College of Art and Design, but more on that from Michele herself:

I was wandering down a different road originally for my [MFA] Thesis subject when I came across an old process book for a typography class I had completed the year before. I was frustrated with one of the projects, that essentially had us designing icons. I had noted my dissatisfaction (really a bit of rant) and suggested that a more worthwhile use of our time would be to address the problems of communication with type that we currently face. I even had a few prototypes of some new punctuation marks that were amalgams of existing forms. It wasn’t until I started to really dig into the problem and contemplate a solution that I realized that to make this effort anything other than wildly theoretical, implementation couldn’t rely on brand-new marks. Making use of new punctuation needed to be as simple and effortless as possible to encourage use, so let’s just use what we already have.

The most interesting thing I discovered was the result of the surveys I did. I asked about the frequency of miscommunication across a lot of intellectual and emotional expressions, and was really shocked at how high it was in ALL categories. Why would ‘happy’ be so frequently be misunderstood, or ‘thanks’ (for example). After mulling that over for a bit I came to the conclusion that the real villain of the piece is sarcasm. Particularly in the teen demographic I surveyed, there is hardly anything they can say that couldn’t be (and often is) turned into a sarcastic slam. When you can hear tone, and see a curled lip well then it is easy to see what the intention is, but not so with just written words. Perhaps the anticipation of sarcasm is something of a reflex, and makes nearly everything suspect. As I state on my web site (and thesis), having a mark that identifies sarcasm allows nearly all other statements/expressions to default to a sincere interpretation.

So there you have it. I’m intrigued by the application of survey data to the design of new marks — I can’t help but wonder how the results would look with a broader set of data points. Is conveying sarcasm a problem for the majority of internet users? Is ambivalence or confusion under-punctuated? Perhaps Michele and I should collaborate on a survey of Shady Characters’ readers. That said, we might skew the data somewhat — it’s hard to imagine a more punctuation-savvy group of people!

Michele has already responded thoughtfully to some of last week’s comments (here, here, and here) and I’m sure she’ll be keeping an eye on this post for more. Alternatively, she tweets as @get_my_point and maintains a Facebook page for the getthepoint project — I’m sure she’d love to hear from you.

So: thank you again, Michele, for getting in touch, and for putting your creations out there for us to mull over!