Miscellany № 47: great!* Another sarcasm mark.

Hot on the heels of the Sartalics’ resurrection, and barely a decade on from the Great Sarcasm Mark Bonanza of the Noughties (I’m hoping that this sobriquet catches on), another new sarcasm mark has swum into view. It has brought friends.

New punctuation marks from getthepoint.me.

New punctuation marks from getthepoint.me.

I received this tweet a few weeks ago. To cut a short story shorter, it pointed the way to a website titled “get the point” proposing a set of three new punctuation marks, a sarcasm mark among them. As the site explains:

Communicating with clarity is the challenge imposed with text-based forms of dialogs, and this becomes more and more important as a greater number of our personal and professional exchanges are transacted via text-based methods of delivery.

Adding a few new punctuation marks to our written communications could help correct this situation. That’s what this is all about. [emphasis in original text]

Unlike previous efforts that might have been purely hypothetical, needed special downloads and installations, wanted to you to PAY, or required you to remember special key sequences — we can use marks that are right there, right in front of us, right now. They are clearly visible on any standard North American keyboard, and a quick tap away on tablet and mobile devices.

A laudable set of goals. What’s more, the site backs this all up with cold, hard data gathered from high school students in Winnipeg, Manitoba, that shows that happiness, humour, excitement and sarcasm were regularly misinterpreted in written communication. (You can contribute your own experiences if you’d like to add to the dataset.) To combat this lack of clarity, “get the point” proposes three new marks: an asterisk (*) for sarcasm, a question-mark-plus-tilde (?~) for confusion, and a double closing parenthesis (‘))’) for a happy or joking tone.

I can see the reasoning behind each of these: an asterisk as a footnote marker has always suggested a second or hidden meaning; the tilde is a mathematical symbol denoting an approximation; and the double parenthesis is inspired by the plain old smiley face. More intriguing is the suggestion that these marks can be combined to yield new, composite meanings, as the site demonstrates:

Well, that will be great.* (droll, deadpan)
That’s just what I need!* (agitated)
You must be so excited))* (shared joke)
Could he be more helpful?* (sarcasm rolled into a rhetorical question)
I have no idea?~* (feigned confusion)

Hmm. I was on board until the third example. To me, the individual marks work better than the combined versions: the asterisk in particular I like; the tilde is reasonably defensible; and the smiley/double parenthesis is easily interpreted even if it feels a little redundant in the face of actual smileys.

I’ve tried to get in touch with the author of this new adventure in punctuation but they seem to be keeping a low profile. If you’re the person responsible for the site, please let me know via the contact form! Better yet, leave a comment below so that Shady Characters’ astute readership can weigh in on your creations. I for one would love to learn more about the project and its goals.

All this talk of sarcasm marks reminded me of a comment left by one Catherine Barber regarding the use of ‘(!)’ as a sarcasm mark in televisual subtitles. I’d read about this before, and some digging revealed that it is perhaps the closest thing to an officially-sanctioned sarcasm mark that currently exists. This document, from the UK broadcasting standards watchdog Ofcom, says that ‘(!)’ should be used for sarcasm and ‘(?)’ for irony. As the “Guidance on Standards for Subtitling” explains,

Where tone of voice is particularly critical to meaning, and facial expression and body language are inadequate to convey the tone, the use of ‘(!)’ and ‘(?)’ immediately following speech can indicate sarcasm and irony as shown below:

No, no. You’re not late (!)

The more I think about it, the more I think I must have seen these constructions in use in Wallander, The Bridge, or another of BBC4’s imported (and subtitled) dramas. There’s a certain seductive simplicity about them, and the fact that I didn’t notice their use at the time makes me wonder if they aren’t the answer to our collective yearning for sarcasm and irony marks.

What do you think? Have you seen these marks in use? Do they fit the bill?

Miscellany № 46: return to Ampersand Mountain

Well, this is quite something.

Alex Jay, a long-time friend of Shady Characters, wrote in after last week’s trip to Ampersand Mountain with the results of a little historical detective work. It turns out that not only do the Adirondacks boast an Ampersand Mountain and an Ampersand Creek, once upon a time the discerning holidaymaker seeking “music, tennis court[s], base ball field, boating, riding etc.” could have done a lot worse than check in to Hotel Ampersand, nestled beneath the mountain of the same name.

Exterior of Hotel Ampersand

Hotel Ampersand, circa 1893. (Image from Google Books via Alex Jay.)

Alex came across Seneca Ray Stoddard’s Adirondacks Illustrated guidebook,[1] the twenty-third edition of which was published in 1893 (and from which these illustrations are taken) while researching the graphic design of the ampersand through the years. Stoddard was a renowned photographer and travel writer with a fondness for the Adirondacks in particular, who publicised his photographs and books with public lectures describing his trips to all corners of the globe.[2] (I am put in mind of those bands who use live gigs to sell other merchandise such as T-shirts and CDs.)

Lobby of Hotel Ampersand

The lobby of Hotel Ampersand, circa 1893. (Image from Google Books via Alex Jay.)

Stoddard was evidently quite taken by Hotel Ampersand. He described it as “roomy, rambling and artistic — full of unsuspected corners and pleasant surprises”; he draws attention to the elevator that “makes all floors almost equally desirable”; and notes approvingly that the hotel “is heated throughout with steam and lighted with gas.” Separately, and rather surprisingly, it transpires that the New York Public Library possesses a menu from the hotel’s spacious dining room, dated to 1891, and from which one might order a cosmopolitan meal of Consommé Royale, Beef Braisé à la Bourgeoise, and Almond Blanc Mange.[3] Discounting its rural situation, the Adirondacks’ Hotel Ampersand was — well, it was The Ampersand Hotel of its day.

So: are there any other punctuation-related hotels or eateries out there? Let us know in the comments! Finally, many thanks to Alex Jay for taking the time to send over this material — I hope that you all enjoyed this trip down punctuational memory lane as much as I did.

  • [1] S. Stoddard, The Adirondacks, 23rd ed., Glens Falls, NY: The Author, 1893. Bibtex

    @book{Stoddard1893, address = {Glens Falls, NY},
      author = {Stoddard, Seneca},
      edition = {23rd},
      publisher = {The Author},
      title = {{The Adirondacks}},
      year = {1893}
    }
  • [2] “Seneca Ray Stoddard.” Albany, NY: New York State Museum. <https://www.nysm.nysed.gov/virtual/exhibits/SRS/> Bibtex

    @misc{NYSMStoddard, address = {Albany, NY},
      publisher = {New York State Museum},
      title = {{Seneca Ray Stoddard}},
      url = {https://www.nysm.nysed.gov/virtual/exhibits/SRS/},
      urldate = {13/04/14}
    }
  • [3] “Hotel Ampersand,” in Whats on the menu?. New York: NYPL Labs. <http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/29520> Bibtex

    @misc{AmpersandMenu, address = {New York},
      booktitle = {Whats on the menu?},
      publisher = {NYPL Labs},
      title = {{Hotel Ampersand}},
      url = {http://menus.nypl.org/menu\_pages/29520},
      urldate = {13/04/14}
    }

Miscellany № 45: the endangered @

I learn from Mashable and Buzzfeed that Twitter is planning to streamline its user interface so as to downplay the roles of the @-symbol and the ‘#’, or octothorpe.

I am troubled by this.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is a “microblogging” service where users post messages restricted to 140 characters or fewer. When replying to a message, the response is automatically prefixed with an @-sign and the original author’s name. For example, if I, as @shadychars, posted this message:

Who doesn’t love the interrobang‽

Were someone to respond — one @orkneydullard, say — upon hitting the reply button they would be presented with a textbox that is pre-populated with the username of the original author. Their reply might look like this:

@shadychars I know! It’s great, isn’t it?

From my limited reading of the Twitter developer documentation, it looks like this “@username” prefix is what a computer programmer would call “syntactic sugar” — a purely aesthetic construct that has no effect on the underlying functionality of the service. Twitter knows who you are when you post a tweet, and it knows who your respondents are; Twitter’s websites and applications can present the conversation to you in a logical, chronologically-ordered fashion with the authors of the various tweets made clear, as an email client might do, without any actual need to belabour the names of the participants.

Twitter also appears to be looking into the use of “hashtags”, where any word prefixed by a ‘#’ permits users to search for other tweets that use the same term simply by clicking or tapping on the term. Each hashtag in a tweet becomes a sort of mini-topic, or grouping mechanism. My guess (although I haven’t seen any screenshots to confirm this) is that once typed in, hashtags will be removed from the 140-character limit and presented as separate buttons or user interface elements.

I can understand the motivation behind the changes: relying on esoteric syntax and symbols is not the best way to engage sceptical would-be users, and freeing up a few characters per message would certainly help those of us who have trouble expressing ourselves concisely. That said, the @-symbol and the octothorpe have always been the shrinking violets of the punctuation world; it took the arrival of Internet email to rehabilitate the ‘@’, and these days the ‘#’ owes its popularity almost entirely to Twitter. What does the future hold if their most prominent booster casts them by the wayside?

In happier news: feast your eyes on the view from Ampersand Mountain!

View from Ampersand Mountain, New York

The picturesque (punctuationesque?) view from the summit of Ampersand Mountain in upstate New York. (Image courtesy of user “Mwanner” on Wikipedia.)

Recently, one of my Google Alerts sent me to an innocuous-looking local news site reporting on a hiking group in the Ticonderoga area of New York state. “Trail Mix”, as the group calls itself, have visited a variety of peaks in the Adirondacks — including one which takes its name from the tortuous meanderings of a nearby creek. Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Ampersand Mountain!

Miscellany № 44: clampersands and dieses

First off, I give you The Adjustable Clampersand. Need I say more?

Actually, I do. As much as you or I might want to lay our hands on one of these glorious devices, we’ll just have to wait. As Hand-Eye Supply explains on the clampersand’s product page,

Sad news! The machine shop at the Foundry where our next run of Clampersands was being finished burned down and our latest run was destroyed. Here’s the news story via NBC Chicago. Fortunately no one was seriously injured, and a new run of Clampersands is expected soon.

Hand-Eye say that a new foundry will be, well, found as soon as possible, and clampersand shipments will resume in mid-April. (Hat tip to I Love Typography for the link!)

The origins of the diesis, or ‘‡’, have remained obscure to me since I first started researching its singular sibling, the dagger (†).[4] The word “diesis” was once used in music to represent a sharp (and indeed in French, the related dièse still is), while its etymology, coming from the Greek δίεσις or “sending through”, does have a hint of piercing or cutting to it.[5] Separately, the visual appearance of the diesis is clearly a straightforward “doubling” of the dagger.

The questions that remain, then, are these: when did the typographic diesis appear, and why? Reader Ivan Bececco sent me a link to his own investigation on the matter (in Italian, here), though unless Google Translate has entirely misled me as to the contents of his article, Ivan too concludes that we just don’t know where the diesis came from. Having looked back through my own notes, none of the typographic references I’ve looked at discuss the history of this familiar but mysterious mark.[6][7][8][9]

So: can any Shady Characters readers shed any light on this? Did the diesis originate with printing, or before it? How did the dagger become the double dagger, and how did it get its name?

In other news, the New York Times tackles the hyphen; Mike Parker, populariser of Neue Haas Grotesk (Helvetica to you and me) has died, and the BBC and The Guardian take a look back at the man and his favoured typeface; Stan Carey takes on “emphatic” quotation marks at the Macmillan Dictionary Blog; and the intricacies of interpreting seventeenth-century semicolons is explored by Christopher M. Graney.

Thanks for reading!

  • [1] S. Stoddard, The Adirondacks, 23rd ed., Glens Falls, NY: The Author, 1893. Bibtex

    @book{Stoddard1893, address = {Glens Falls, NY},
      author = {Stoddard, Seneca},
      edition = {23rd},
      publisher = {The Author},
      title = {{The Adirondacks}},
      year = {1893}
    }
  • [2] “Seneca Ray Stoddard.” Albany, NY: New York State Museum. <https://www.nysm.nysed.gov/virtual/exhibits/SRS/> Bibtex

    @misc{NYSMStoddard, address = {Albany, NY},
      publisher = {New York State Museum},
      title = {{Seneca Ray Stoddard}},
      url = {https://www.nysm.nysed.gov/virtual/exhibits/SRS/},
      urldate = {13/04/14}
    }
  • [3] “Hotel Ampersand,” in Whats on the menu?. New York: NYPL Labs. <http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/29520> Bibtex

    @misc{AmpersandMenu, address = {New York},
      booktitle = {Whats on the menu?},
      publisher = {NYPL Labs},
      title = {{Hotel Ampersand}},
      url = {http://menus.nypl.org/menu\_pages/29520},
      urldate = {13/04/14}
    }
  • [4] J. Hoefler, “House of Flying Reference Marks, or Quillon & Choil,” in typography.com. Hoefler and Frere-Jones, 2009. <http://www.typography.com/ask/showBlog.php?blogID=190> Bibtex

    @misc{JH2009,
      author = {Hoefler, Jonathan},
      booktitle = {typography.com},
      keywords = {dagger,obelisk,shady\_characters},
      mendeley-tags = {dagger,obelisk,shady\_characters},
      month = jun, publisher = {Hoefler and Frere-Jones},
      title = {{House of Flying Reference Marks, or Quillon \& Choil}},
      type = {Electronic citation},
      url = {http://www.typography.com/ask/showBlog.php?blogID=190},
      year = {2009}
    }
  • [5] “diesis, n.,” in OED Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. <http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/52420> Bibtex

    @electronic{OED-DIESIS, address = {Oxford},
      booktitle = {OED Online},
      keywords = { shady\_characters,obelisk},
      month = aug, publisher = {Oxford University Press},
      title = {diesis, n.},
      url = {http://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/52420},
      year = {2012}
    }
  • [6] C. H. Timperley, “On References, &c.,” in A dictionary of printers and printing: with the progress of literature, ancient and modern, bibliographical illustrations …, H. Johnson, 1839, pp. 9-12. <http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3O8DAAAAQAAJ> Bibtex

    @incollection{timperley1839dictionary,
      author = {Timperley, C H},
      booktitle = {A dictionary of printers and printing: with the progress of literature, ancient and modern, bibliographical illustrations ...},
      keywords = { dagger, obelisk, shady\_characters,asterisk},
      pages = {9--12},
      publisher = {H. Johnson},
      title = {{On References, \&c.}},
      url = {http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=3O8DAAAAQAAJ},
      year = {1839}
    }
  • [7] “Footnotes,” in Manual of style, being a compilation of the typographical rules in force at the University of Chicago press, to which are appended specimens of types in use., Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1906, pp. 71-73. <http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/18621241> Bibtex

    @incollection{CHICAGO-FOOTNOTES, address = {Chicago, IL},
      booktitle = {Manual of style, being a compilation of the typographical rules in force at the University of Chicago press, to which are appended specimens of types in use.},
      keywords = {asterisk,dagger,obelisk,shady\_characters},
      pages = {71--73},
      publisher = {University of Chicago Press},
      title = {{Footnotes}},
      url = {http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/18621241},
      year = {1906}
    }
  • [8] J. Johnson, “References,” in Typographia, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown & Green, 1824, vol. 2, pp. 49-53. <http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HHwsAAAAYAAJ> Bibtex

    @incollection{johnson1824typographia-references,
      author = {Johnson, J},
      booktitle = {Typographia},
      keywords = {manicule,shady\_characters},
      pages = {49--53},
      publisher = {Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown \& Green},
      series = {Typographia},
      title = {{References}},
      url = {http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HHwsAAAAYAAJ},
      volume = {2},
      year = {1824}
    }
  • [9] T. Rosendorf, “Double dagger,” in The Typographic Desk Reference, New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Books, 2009, p. 42. <http://www.worldcat.org/isbn/9781584562313> Bibtex

    @inbook{TDR2009-double-dagger, abstract = {"This typography book is somewhere between a quick reference guide and an in-depth analysis. Limited to Latin-based writing systems with an emphasis on form and practical application."--Provided by publisher.},
      address = {New Castle, DE},
      author = {Rosendorf, Theodore},
      booktitle = {The Typographic Desk Reference},
      isbn = {9781584562313},
      pages = {42+},
      publisher = {Oak Knoll Books},
      title = {double dagger},
      url = {http://www.worldcat.org/isbn/9781584562313},
      year = {2009}
    }

Mea culpa № 2

This is a quick note to thank Tim Nau for his eagle-eyed contributions to the Shady Characters errata. As always, please don’t hesitate to get in touch or leave a comment below if you come across an error in any edition or format of Shady Characters. I’d appreciate it very much, and I’d be very happy to acknowledge you in future editions!