Miscellany № 56: an octothorpean Christmas

We need to talk about the octothorpe — primarily because everyone else is talking about it too. The past couple of months have see the ‘#’ dusted off, dressed up in its party clothes, and presented to the world at large in a variety of articles, videos, and radio programmes. But the octothorpe’s current renaissance does not stop there; by means of diligent detective work I have determined that it is now possible to experience the #-symbol with every human sense. I mean it: you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste the octothorpe if you so desire. How, you ask? Let me tell you.
We start with a treat for your ears. Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible has long been a favourite of mine. If you’ve never listened before, 99% Invisible is “a tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” Each episode is a short but in-depth examination of some quirky piece of design or history — the lightbulb in a Californian fire station that has been burning since 1901; the surprisingly involved world of flag design; and many others — and I was, frankly, giddy to be asked to participate in a new instalment about the history of the octothorpe.

After some to-ing and fro-ing via email, I ended up talking with producer Avery Trufelman over the phone a few weeks ago, and the completed episode (entitled, simply, “Octothorpe”) aired last week. You can read a transcript and take a look at some related images at the 99% Invisible website, but I heartily recommend that you listen to the podcast itself first — not for me, although I am in there, but instead to get the story of the word ‘octothorpe’ straight from the two men most responsible for its current fame and its current name. Doug Kerr and Lorne Asplund, engineers at Bell Labs during the creation of the Touch-Tone telephone, were, respectively, the architects of the #-symbol’s placement on the telephone keypad and its later christening as the ‘octothorpe’, and Avery chatted to them about their parts in the whole thing. I’d already been lucky enough to correspond with Doug while writing my original posts on the subject, but it was still a privilege to hear him explain the story aloud.

All in all, it was a pleasure to help out and to listen to the finished product, and I hope that you enjoy listening to it too.

Next, feast your eyes on this video from Hank Green, co-founder of online clothing store DFTBA and an enthusiastic vlogger to boot:

Shady Characters readers will already be familiar with much of what Hank says, but his “symbolistic journey” through the creation and naming of the octothorpe is still worth watching.

As a bonus, here’s another video examination of the history of the ‘#’, this time from The Guardian’s Ollie Peart. Be warned: there is some strong language in there, allied to Peart’s ascerbically witty commentary on the subject of the ‘#’. Watch at your own risk!

Next up, we get interactive in more ways than one. Over at Kickstarter, the intrepid duo of Ben Gomori and Jessica Riches are trying to get their project to built a keyboard consisting of a single ‘#’ key off the ground.

The HashKey by Ben Gomori, currently being kickstarted. (Image courtesy of Ben Gomori.)

The HashKey, currently on Kickstarter. Image courtesy of Ben Gomori.)

With twenty-three hours to go at the time of writing, Gomori and Riches are still a daunting £12,500 short of their funding goal. The window to get your own HashKey is rapidly closing — get your pledge in now if you’d like to see them succeed!

So: sight, sound and touch are now taken care of. On to taste and smell, if you can believe it.

In its role as symbol for a pound in weight, the octothorpe is a natural fit for recipe writers. It is terse and visually unique, and unlikely to be mistaken for any other similar symbol. And so, when Marissa Nicosia, a visiting professor of English at Scripps College, took to Twitter to ask what the following symbol was, the answer was immediate and unanimous: this scribbled mark is the pound sign, or octothorpe, caught midway between its earlier ‘lb’ and later ‘#’ forms.

<cite>The delights for ladys : to adorne there persons beautyes stillyris banquits perfumes [and] wators</cite>, a recipe book written in 1655.

The delights for ladys : to adorne there persons beautyes stillyris banquits perfumes [and] wators, a recipe book written in 1655. (Image courtesy of Penn Libraries.)

Taken from a 1655 recipe book entitled The delights for ladys : to adorne there persons beautyes stillyris banquits perfumes [and] wators, this pseudo-octothorpe would have been written a scant few years after the birth of Isaac Newton, a man who, as we have seen before, was fond of a handwritten pound sign himself.

The seventeenth-century recipe from which this octothorpe is taken describes how to make macarons, and the complete recipe is available to view (and perhaps to try out) at Penn Libraries’ web site. But if you consider delicate, delicious macarons to be too damned refined for their own good, how about some pre-fried, oven-cooked potato “shapes” in the form of the octothorpe and other zeitgeisty marks? I present to you Birds Eye “Mashtags”, and I have eaten them so that you don’t have to.


Birds Eye “Mashtags”: “PREFRIED POTATO SHAPES MADE WITH FRESHLY MASHED POTATOES”. (Image, and ALL CAPS, courtesy of Birds Eye.)

“It’s Twitter, for your mouth!” as Christopher Hooton described Mashtags in The Independent, and if that is the case then Twitter tastes a lot like warmed-over, carry-out chips eaten the morning after the night before. The less said about the smell, the better.
And there you have it! The octothorpe in five senses. That’s it from me for 2014 — thank you all for reading throughout the year, for the many insightful and entertaining comments, and, well, for buying the book! Have a great Christmas and New Year, and see you all in 2015.

Miscellany № 55: ¶ < & < +

Christmas shopping getting you down? Me too, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of my list of things to find and buy. Here, then, are a few links of a punctuational kind to help take your mind off the next plunge into city-centre shopping madness. Enjoy!
First up is this excellent piece about the origin, use, and design of the pilcrow by Marcin Wichary, a designer at long-form blogging site Medium. As Marcin explains:

Today, reading is a breeze and it’s all the empty space around characters that lets this breeze through. Commas, apostrophes, dashes require little ink, but still surround themselves with generous canvases. Lowercase letters are often content with occupying very little of the space provided. And then there’s pure whitespace too, vast and uninked: room in between rows of letters, pauses flanking words, and the most lavish convention this side of Page intentionally left blank — tens of thousands of pixels off-duty, creating breathing room in between paragraphs. (Just look around, right here on this page.)

But all that whitespace did not appear overnight, and travelling back through thousands of years of history provides clues on how we went from then to now.

The pilcrow will be familiar to Shady Characters readers, of course, and Marcin skips directly from its ancient origins to its appearance in type, but I urge you to take a look at his essay nevertheless. Marcin’s writing is airy and entertaining, his illustrations are superbly, well, illustrative, and he makes a strong case that the pilcrow is becoming an endangered species — its visual design is often clunky and uninspired when compared to other shady characters such as the ampersand. Have a read!

If the pilcrow is suffering from a lack of enthusiasm, it seems that the ampersand is actively coming under attack, in London at least. Back in September, Victoria Stewart of the London Evening Standard reported on a curious scuffle between the ampersand and the plus sign being played out on the signage and menus of London’s ever-changing restaurant scene. Victoria lists some of the protagonists:

In the first category, we have the plus sign, which is increasingly creeping into signage for bars and restaurants including Peg + Patriot, Sager + Wilde, Jackson + Rye and the new Yorkshire wraps business Hereford + York. A Danish café, Snaps + Rye, and a Soho yakitori venture, Blood + Wasabi, arrive soon.

In the second category, we have the & or ampersand, taken up by juice company Roots & Bulbs and bar-and- restaurants Silk & Grain and Wine & Charcuterie. Very soon we can also add a salt beef and salmon café, Delancey & Co, and the Southbank pop-up, Krug & Krustacean, to the mix.

The suggestion, she writes, is that the plus sign is “stronger” in some way than the stuffy ampersand — that a mathematical addition is more primitive, more vital than a simple Latin ‘and’. This is clearly not a war in which lives are going to be lost, but it does make me wonder if we’re seeing the first cracks in the ampersand’s millennium-long reign as the West’s preeminent ‘and’-sign. What do you think? Is the ‘+’ on the up, is the ampersand on the defensive, or both?

Image courtesy of Cynthia Batty.

Image courtesy of Cynthia Batty.

Lastly, Shady Characters reader Cynthia Batty has asked a favour of me, and I am happy to oblige. As a type designer, typographer, and author on the subjects of design and typography, Cynthia has amassed a huge collection of wooden type over the course of her career. Now, though, she is “seeking good homes” for around sixty drawers’ worth of such type pictured over at her Flickr account. If you’re interested in taking a case or two (or sixty!) off her hands, please drop her a line on Twitter @CynthiaBatty — she promises that shipping won’t be prohibitive, even to European recipients. If you’ve ever fancied your hand at some typesetting, or if you’re a letterpress studio looking to expand your collection of type, why not get in touch with her?

The 2014 Shady Characters gift guide

Interrobang cufflinks, by webbysue on Etsy

Interrobang cufflinks, made from vintage typewriter keys with the addition of printed interrobang glyphs. (Image courtesy of webbysue on Etsy.com.)

A couple of years ago, my wife gave me a pair of interrobang cufflinks (as shown above) for Christmas. They were the perfect gift, and I was lucky to get them — I’m afraid to say that they’re no longer available. But if you’re still looking for a gift for the punctuation-phile in your life, worry not: ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the inaugural Shady Characters holiday gift guide!

Cheese & crackers serving board from UncommonGoods of Brooklyn. (Image courtesy of UncommonGoods.)

Cheese & crackers serving board from UncommonGoods of Brooklyn. (Image courtesy of UncommonGoods.)

First up is this excellent ampersand cheese board from UncommonGoods of Brooklyn, New York. And really, is there anything else to say? The only thing that could improve this would be for it to be inscribed with a pilcrow or interrobang instead. The price is a little rich at $48, but surely this is worth the outlay of some hard-earned cheddar.

Next is a slightly more tangential gift. Type:Rider is a peaceful, pleasant stroll through the history of typography in the form of a video game for Android and iOS devices. It’s a lovely experience — this is no frantic shoot-’em-up — in which the player controls a mobile colon on a journey through ten different typographic worlds, from the Renaissance to the present day. It’s all accompanied by some lovely music. Even if you aren’t the video gaming sort (or, er, the object of your gift-giving isn’t the video gaming sort), Type:Rider is still more than worth the few dollars it costs. Give it a go!

Karl Weicholds Interrobang Vermouth. (Image courtesy of Interrobang LLC.)

Karl Weichold’s Interrobang Vermouth. (Image courtesy of Interrobang LLC.)

If Type:Rider’s puzzles prove to be too taxing, maybe it’s time for a relaxing cocktail instead? As covered here a few months back, Karl Weichold of Oregon’s Willamette Valley produces the delightfully-named Interrobang Sweet Vermouth, which would no doubt go down a treat in a Manhattan or Negroni. Unfortunately, only natives of the Pacific Northwest need apply; I’ve been unable to hunt down an online source for Mr Weichold’s liqueur, but if any readers do manage to lay their hands on a bottle I’d love to hear what you think of it.

Ben's Garden 'Symbol' Coaster Set. (Image courtesy of Nordstrom.)

Ben’s Garden ‘Symbol’ Coaster Set. (Image courtesy of Nordstrom.)

Of course, now you have that glass in your hand, it’d be nice to have somewhere to put it down safely. Enter Nordstrom’s ‘Symbol’ coasters: four coasters bearing symbols that will warm the cockles of the punctuation-loving heart. And just think — as the recipient of this thoughtful gift unwraps it, you’ll be able to regale them with tales of how the octothorpe, @-symbol, and ampersand came about in the first place. Assuming, that is, that you remembered to order that copy of Shady Characters you’d been meaning to buy since the paperback came out last month.
Thanks for reading, and for putting up with my excruciating gameshow-esque patter. It just comes naturally, honest. If you do end up giving any of these gifts this holiday season, do leave a comment to let us know how it went!

Augustus & Everything After: a Shady Characters field trip

Monumental inscription from Pompeii forum. (Photo by the author.)

Monumental inscription from Pompeii forum. (Photo by the author.)

The trip from the tourist town of Sorrento, clinging to the cliffs on the southern edge of the Bay of Naples, to the ancient settlement of Pompeii is an engaging one. Sorrento is the end of line, literally speaking: the railway track comes to an end there and so there is often a ticking, cooling train waiting on which to grab a seat before the journey begins. It’s also the place where the line’s itinerant folk bands take a cigarette break before the train beeps to signal its imminent departure. You will put a euro or two into their proffered caps, mostly because the weather is sunny and warm and you’re about to visit one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe, but also because it is physiologically impossible not to tap your foot along with upbeat accordion music.

Two kinds of trains ply the Circumvesuviana line. The new kind, the boring kind, are sleek, air-conditioned commuter appliances indistinguishable from modern light rail systems anywhere in the world, with tinted windows and space-efficient standing-room-only layouts. Their blunt, slab-sided predecessors are far more characterful, like ’70s NYC subway carriages writ large. They are battered, they creak, they are full of sharp edges and exposed rivets and peeling advertisements — and their aluminium skins are covered by graffiti from platform to roof.

Eventually, far later than advertised, the train pulls out slowly. It passes gingerly through the mountain tunnels and across the viaducts that together even out the peaks and troughs of the ragged coastline, and from its windows you watch shipyards, farms, towns and derelict factories pass you by, with the Bay of Naples sparkling behind everything to the west. And with the exception of the plants in the fields (who in their right mind would try to spray-paint crops?), everything is covered with graffiti: the trains, the buildings, the street furniture and all. I was surprised at the scale of it, but then perhaps I shouldn’t have been — the Romans have been graffiti enthusiasts from the dawn of the Republic all the way down to the present day.[1]

Brickmaker's stamp at Pompeii. (Photo by the author.)

Brickmaker’s stamp at Pompeii. This brick was laid into one of the streetside counters from which Pompeians bought prandium, or lunch, and where pots of hot food were kept warm in brick-lined receptacles. (Photo by the author.)

Personally, I was interested in one particular piece of graffiti. Pompeii is the closest that the ampersand has to a place of birth — the earliest recorded ampersand was found there as part of a graffito — and I wanted to find it for myself. I had no idea where in Pompeii it was, but then, I thought, how hard could it be to find? Time has a way of flattening ancient settlements, and I’m used to archaeological sites being mostly horizontal places where buildings, streets, and walls are witnessed only by their outlines in the ground. Surely a piece of graffiti on an upstanding wall would be signposted for all to see?

Well, no.

Pompeii is huge, and it is arrestingly intact. It is 170 acres of ash-blasted homes, shops, cafés, bath-houses, and brothels, all with their stuccoed brick walls still upright,[2] with a few marbled temples and stone theatres thrown in for good measure. Imagine all of that enticing wall space in an era before street lighting and you have a graffiti artist’s dream: when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD,[3] choking Pompeii and its inhabitants with a dense cloud of volcanic ash, its walls were covered in messages.

Shopfront lettering at Pompeii. (Photo by the author.)

Shopfront lettering at Pompeii. “Lollium”? Translations are welcome! (Photo by the author.)

Professor Brian Harvey of Kent State University has compiled a few of the more notable tags, and my word, the Romans were a bawdy lot:[4]

Atrium of the House of Pinarius
If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girlfriend.
Bar/Brothel of Innulus and Papilio
Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
Gladiator barracks
Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion.
Peristyle of the Tavern of Verecundus
Restitutus says: “Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates”.

Sadly, much of the graffiti is now lost or illegible, and as much as I looked I could not find anything resembling an ampersand. But there was plenty of “official” writing to take in as we wandered the streets in the baking heat, from monumental inscriptions down to bricks stamped with their maker’s mark, and so here I’ve collected a few of the more interesting inscriptions. (I must apologise for the quality of the photographs; I only had my smartphone with me, and I’ve had to edit some images to bring out the text.)

Inscription from theatre seating at Pompeii. (Photo by the author.)

Inscription from theatre seating at Pompeii. (Photo by the author.)

In the end, I rather forgot about finding the Pompeii ampersand. The sheer variety of messages, scripts and contexts was intriguing: there were monumental inscriptions in stately roman capitals; functional theatre seat numbers in a simple sans serif (brickmakers’ marks used a wonky, flared sans, a kind of fat, drunk Optima); and shopfronts and miscellaneous inscriptions were rendered in homely rustic capitals.

In gawking at all this I almost missed the one thing that should have been evident from the start: there is almost no punctuation! The Romans of the first century AD were still very much in thrall to the scriptio continua of their Greek cousins, and the only commonly-used mark was the interpunct (·), placed between words to it easier to parse continuous texts. There are no commas, colons, or periods here, much less any more sophisticated marks; it makes for a bracingly pure reading experience, if nothing else.

The more I think about it, though, now I’m back in dreich Edinburgh, the more it seems obvious that today’s monuments and shopfronts are lightly punctuated, too. As I look out of the window of the coffee shop in which I’m writing I can see only three non-alphabetic marks: an ampersand (irony!) on a sign for “Property Sales & Lettings”; a pair of “dumb” quotes explaining that a hairdresser is “Open Sundays”; and a full stop in a street sign that reads “St. Stephen Street”. Public typography will tell you a certain amount about how a society wrote their texts and communicated their ideas, but to really understand them you have to look at their more mundane works — the papyrus scrolls thrown onto the refuse heap, the pottery sherds used as makeshift receipts or ballot papers, or the wax tablets on which shopping lists and to-do notes were jotted down. And so today, Pompeii’s punctuational shady characters are little in evidence in the town itself — except, of course, for that one elusive ampersand, scratched somewhere on a wall and patiently awaiting rediscovery.

Inscription on stone plaque at Pompeii. (Photo by the author.)

Inscription on stone plaque at Pompeii. (Photo by the author.)

You can see more photographs of lettering at Pompeii in this photo album at Google+ (no sign in required). And if you’ve enjoyed this post, why not purchase a copy of the Shady Characters book to learn more about Roman ampersands, lettering and punctuation?
  • [1] A. Ruggeri, “Why, Why, Why Does Rome Have So Much Graffiti? – Revealed Rome,” in Revealed Rome. Rome: 2010. <http://www.revealedrome.com/2010/08/why-why-why-does-rome-have-so-much-graffiti.html> Bibtex

    @misc{Ruggeri2010, address = {Rome},
      author = {Ruggeri, Amanda},
      booktitle = {Revealed Rome},
      keywords = {Italy,graffiti ancient Rome,graffiti in Rome,street art,tagging,vandalism},
      month = aug, title = {{Why, Why, Why Does Rome Have So Much Graffiti? - Revealed Rome}},
      url = {http://www.revealedrome.com/2010/08/why-why-why-does-rome-have-so-much-graffiti.html},
      urldate = {2014-11-07},
      year = {2010}
  • [2] “Pompeii, construction detail: “faux marble” column of brick covered with stucco,” in Art Images for College Teaching. University of Michigan Library. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/i/image/image-idx?id=S-AICT-X-RM057\%5DRM000_IMG0057> Bibtex

    @misc{PompeiiBrick2014, booktitle = {Art Images for College Teaching},
      publisher = {University of Michigan Library},
      title = {{Pompeii, construction detail: “faux marble” column of brick covered with stucco}},
      url = {http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/i/image/image-idx?id=S-AICT-X-RM057\%5DRM000\_IMG0057},
      urldate = {2014-11-07}
  • [3] “Vesuvius (volcano, Italy),” in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/627039/Vesuvius> Bibtex

    @misc{VEB2011, address = {Chicago},
      booktitle = {Encyclopaedia Britannica},
      keywords = {ampersand,shady\_characters},
      mendeley-tags = {ampersand,shady\_characters},
      month = jun, publisher = {Encyclopaedia Britannica},
      title = {{Vesuvius (volcano, Italy)}},
      type = {Electronic citation},
      url = {http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/627039/Vesuvius},
      year = {2011}
  • [4] B. Harvey, “Graffiti from Pompeii,” in Pompeiana.org. <http://www.pompeiana.org/resources/ancient/graffiti from pompeii.htm> Bibtex

      author = {Harvey, Brian},
      booktitle = {Pompeiana.org},
      title = {{Graffiti from Pompeii}},
      url = {http://www.pompeiana.org/resources/ancient/graffiti from pompeii.htm},
      urldate = {2014-11-07}

5 Punctuation Marks That Look Nothing Like They Used To

I wrote an article for the Huffington Post, and yes, I gave it a clickbait headline. Enjoy!