Miscellany № 59: the percent sign

Reproduced from David Eugene Smith's 1908 Rara Arithmetica, the penultimate line of this manuscript contains the abbreviation pcº, with the 'c' pulled out into a long horizontal stroke. (Image from archive.org.)

Reproduced from David Eugene Smith’s 1908 Rara Arithmetica, the penultimate line of this manuscript contains the abbreviation pco, with the ‘c’ pulled out into a long horizontal stroke and the ‘o’ balanced precariously at its rightmost extremity. (Image from archive.org.)

A few weeks back, Nina Stössinger asked on Twitter:

Isn’t it odd that the percent sign looks like “0/0” rather than, say, “/100” or “/00”?

This, it turns out, is a very good question. Like Nina, I had assumed that the percent sign was shaped so as to invoke the idea of a vulgar fraction, with a tiny zero aligned on either side of a solidus ( ⁄ ), or fraction slash. That said, something about those zeroes had always nagged at me. Specifically, as you divide any non-zero quantity by a smaller and smaller number the result tends ever closer to infinity (or rather, ±∞ as appropriate), until finally, when dividing by zero itself, you reach a mathematical singularity where the result cannot be computed — a numerical black hole of exotic properties and mind-bending implications. Throw in another zero as the numerator and you have a thoroughly nonsensical fraction. Though this is all terribly exciting from a philosophical point of view, it is not an especially useful situation to be in when trying to communicate the simple concept of division into hundredths. Either the ‘%’ had stumbled, blinking, from some secret garden of esoteric mathematics and into the real world, or there was more to the story. And so there was.

Writing in 1908, David Eugene Smith, later to be president of the Mathematical Association of America,[1] reported on a peculiar find he had made in an Italian manuscript written sometime during the early part of fifteenth century. (Smith was cataloguing the mathematical holdings of one George Arthur Plimpton, a publisher and philanthropist who had amassed a huge library of ancient books.) What had caught Smith’s eye was an oddly attenuated abbreviation comprising a ‘p’, an elongated ‘c’, and a superscript ‘o’, or ‘o’, balanced upon the extended upper terminal of the ‘c’, as seen at top. From its context, Smith deduced that pco was a stand-in for the words per cento, or “per hundred”, more often abbreviated to per 100, p cento, or p 100.[2] It was the first step towards a distinct percent sign — and, counterintuitively, it had precisely nothing to do with the digit zero.

A percent sign written in 1684, as reproduced in David Eugene Smith's History of Mathematics. (Image courtesy of archive.org.)

A percent sign written in 1684, as reproduced in David Eugene Smith’s History of Mathematics. (Image courtesy of archive.org.)

Smith picked up the trail with his weighty two-volume History of Mathematics, published in 1923,[3] wherein he printed an image of the percent sign caught midway between pco and ‘%’. Taken from an Italian manuscript of 1684, as seen above, by now the word per had collapsed into the tortuous but common scribal abbreviation seen here while the ‘c’ had morphed into a closed circle surmounted by a short horizontal stroke. The imperturbable ‘o’ sat atop it. All that remained was for the vestigial per to vanish and for the horizontal stroke to assume its familiar diagonal orientation — a change that occurred sometime during the nineteenth century — and the evolution of the percent sign was complete.

Since then the ‘%’ has gone from strength to strength, and today we revel in a whole family of “per ————” signs, with ‘%’ joined by ‘‰’ (“per mille”, or per thousand) and ‘‱’ (per ten thousand). All very logical, on the face of it, and all based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the percent sign came to be. Nina and I can comfort ourselves that we are not the first people, and likely will not be the last, to have made the same mistake.

  • [1] B. W. Fite, “[Obituary]: David Eugene Smith,” The American Mathematical Monthly, vol. 52, iss. 5, pp. 237-238, 1945. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2305875> Bibtex

      author = {Fite, W Benjamin},
      issn = {00029890},
      journal = {The American Mathematical Monthly},
      number = {5},
      pages = {237--238},
      publisher = {Mathematical Association of America},
      title = {{[Obituary]: David Eugene Smith}},
      url = {http://www.jstor.org/stable/2305875},
      volume = {52},
      year = {1945}
  • [2] D. E. Smith, Rara arithmetica; a catalogue of the arithmetics written before the year MDCI, with description of those in the library of George Arthur Plimpton, of New York, Boston: Ginn & company, 1908. Bibtex

    @book{Smith1908, address = {Boston},
      author = {Smith, David Eugene},
      publisher = {Ginn \& company},
      title = {{Rara arithmetica; a catalogue of the arithmetics written before the year MDCI, with description of those in the library of George Arthur Plimpton, of New York}},
      year = {1908}
  • [3] D. E. Smith, History of mathematics, Boston; New York: Ginn & company, 1923. Bibtex

    @book{Smith1923, address = {Boston; New York},
      author = {Smith, David Eugene},
      publisher = {Ginn \& company},
      title = {{History of mathematics}},
      year = {1923}

UK paperback competition: the winners!

Ladies and gentlemen: please put your hands together for Álvaro Franca and Yoni Weiss, winners of the UK paperback giveaway! Their names were picked at random from the set of all commenters, tweeters and Facebook users who replied, retweeted, or favourited the original posts about the competition. (Both Álvaro (@alvaroefe) and Yoni (@yonimweiss) entered via Twitter.) Their copies of the UK paperback edition of Shady Characters will be on their way soon.

Commiserations if you did not win, but thank you nonetheless for all the tweets, comments and likes!

It’s paperback publication day (again, sort of)!

The UK paperback edition of Shady Characters, as designed by Matthew Young.In the spirit of being late for one’s own wedding, I present to you the UK paperback edition of Shady Characters, a mere fortnight after its actual publication!

The paperback is available now from Penguin, Amazon.co.uk (is it wrong of me to want to crack the “Typography” category’s top 5?), The Book Depository, and Waterstones. The e-book, of course, is still available for your Kindle from Amazon and in ePub format at Waterstones.

Thanks go to Matthew Young for updating his hardcover design for the paperback edition (the color reproduction here really doesn’t do it justice — it’s a handsome book indeed), and to Mark Forsyth, Eric Johnson, Zoran Minderovic, Tim Nau, Jeff Norman, Bill Pollack, Patrick Reagh, Jeff Shay, and Liz B. Veronis for helping catch various errata. Thank you all!

To (belatedly) mark the release of the UK paperback edition of Shady Characters, here’s your chance to win of two free copies. I’ll happily post them to the two winners wherever they are in the world. To enter the competition, just do one of the following:

  • leave a comment on this post, making sure to supply a valid email address so that I can contact you in the event that you win
  • reply to, retweet, or mark as favourite the tweet announcing this contest, making sure to follow @shadychars so that I can send you a direct message in the event that you win. (Please don’t create multiple accounts or repeatedly reply to the message — Twitter may ban you as a result. One reply is fine!)
  • comment on or “like” the Facebook post announcing this contest, making sure to follow ShadyChars so that I can contact you in the event that you win. (Please don’t create multiple accounts or repeatedly comment on the message. One reply is fine!)

I’ll make a list of all unique commenters and tweeters in two weeks’ time and pick two names at random as the winners. The contest will close at noon GMT on Sunday 1st March 2015, so make sure you enter before then. Good luck!

Update: the competition is now closed. Thanks to all who entered! I’ll post the winners’ names later today.

Miscellany № 58: a selection of long reads

A back to basics post this week — here are a few longer articles and websites for you to peruse at your leisure.
Erik Kwakkel, who writes the scholarly yet readable Medieval Books blog, recently posted an entry tracing the development of footnotes in the medieval period. Erik’s writings were a great source of inspiration for me as I researched The Book, and in this instance he has managed to hit upon a subject that unites both Shady Characters’ interest in punctuation and the wider world of old books. He writes:

More popular [than the most elaborate footnote symbols], however, were less complex symbols, which could be added to the page much quicker. Dots and lines are particularly common ingredients of such footnote symbols. Interestingly, their first appearance (it seems to me) is not as a connector of comment and text, but as an insertion mark that added an omitted line into the text. […] This omission mark may well be the origins of the footnote system that would emerge over the course of the Middle Ages – and that we still use today, almost unchanged.

Footnotes, in other words, those delicious pairings of unusual symbols (*, †, ‡, etc.) and pontificatory asides, are the products not of writers but of editors. Where an editor found a line to be missing from a text, Erik says, they added it as a footnote as a courtesy to their readers and connected it to the text with an appropriate symbol. The Shady Characters book delves into the use of symbols such as the asterisk and dagger as footnote markers, but Erik’s post is the first time I’ve seen their ancient use as copyediting marks explicitly linked to their more familiar role as footnote markers.

There’s much more to read at Erik’s website, but suffice it to say that his is a tantalising idea and one that I hope he explores further in the future.

In other news, Shady Characters reader Hillel Smith writes to say that his new website Hebrew Type is up and running. Hillel is a graphic designer, illustrator and artist based in Los Angeles, and his site, comprising “a history of Jewish typography and bookmaking”, is both easy on the eye and an excellent read. Certainly, I’m hooked even after just a few entries. Take a look!
Lastly, a little self-promotion! If you’ve ever wondered about the books that inspired and informed Shady Characters then take a look at my “shelfie” in yesterday’s Independent. (Spoiler alert: it contains precisely the sort of books that you imagine.) I’m simultaneously flattered to have been featured and disturbed that my description of Eric Gill was edited down from “beloved and controversial” to simply “beloved”. When it comes to that enthrallingly awful man, I don’t think you can separate the two.

Also this week I contributed a piece to Slate’s “Lexicon Valley” blog on the history of the quotation mark. It’s derived from the Shady Characters chapter on the same subject, condensed in some parts and extended in others, and with all-new images of quotation marks through the ages. Have a read, and feel free to drop by here with any questions you might have. Enjoy!

Miscellany № 57: ampersand, plus, and _____?

Rebecca Kirch's collection of handwritten plus signs. (Image © Rebecca Kirch.)

Rebecca Kirch’s superposed collection of handwritten plus signs. (Image © Rebecca Kirch.)

Happy New Year, everyone! To celebrate the coming of the new year, let’s, er, start by looking back to the old one. Back in December, in response to my post about the ampersand/plus-sign face-off currently underway on the signs of London’s hipster restaurants, commenter Jeremy wrote:

[H]aving taken what might well be hundreds of miles of handwritten notes over the years, I regard the ampersand as too fiddly for quick writing, and instead use a sort of “+” with the far-left and top ends joined. I don’t know if this is a real character (maybe from shorthand?) and I was taught it at some point, or whether it just morphed from a “+”and lazy writing. However, it stands out from the text and (at least with my handwriting), does not get confused with a “t”.

Jamsheed replied:

Well, you’re doing it all wrong! It’s supposed to be the far left and bottom ends that you join together. And I know I’m right, because that’s how I have been doing it all my life.

But seriously, I wholeheartedly agree.

Jeremy and Jamsheed are both correct, of course — there’s more than one way to write a legible ‘+’, ‘&’ or other ‘and’-sign, even when discussing what is ostensibly a single mark. Their description of an augmented or hurried ‘+’-like symbol brought to mind an email conversation I had a few years ago with a designer named Rebecca Kirch (née Alden) about almost exactly the same subject, and that, in turn, got me thinking about how we create, disseminate, and “standardise” new marks or forms of punctuation.

Back in 2004, Rebecca told me, she had decided to examine how the ampersand, plus sign and their kin fared when pen met paper. This would form part of a Masters thesis on the subject, and the result of her research was a fascinating series of images that illustrated just how much our personal ‘and’-signs vary when the time comes to write them down. (You can see one such image above, depicting a multitude of handwritten plus signs like the one described by Jeremy and Jamsheed.) As Rebecca explained in the introduction to her thesis:

Symbolic abbreviations for certain words are part of everyday handwriting, yet they are not part of the alphabet. For example, a writer may use & for ‘and’, w/ for ‘with’ or @ for ‘at’. There are many reasons to use these symbols: maybe because it is faster, or because it saves space, because it looks nice, or because it is more fun to write. Some people use such symbols so frequently and automatically that they have become ingrained in their handwriting.

The way that a handwritten symbol varies from writer to writer “because it is faster, or because it saves space, because it looks nice, or because it is more fun to write” is a recurring theme here at Shady Characters. It is the little idiosyncrasies of our handwriting — the unconscious variations on existing glyphs and the shortcuts we take as write down familiar marks and letters — that have moulded the visual appearance of many marks of punctuation as much as any deliberate process of design. The ampersand, for instance, comes from the juxtaposition of the letters E and t; the ‘@’ may well come from an a surmounted by a bar, or tilde; and the ‘#’ is the formalized descendant of a hastily-written, barred for libra. It is the unpredictability of the human hand, not the aesthetic judgement of a type designer or stone-cutter, that has laid the foundations of our written letters and punctuation.

Collected 'and'-signs. (Image © Rebecca Kirch.)

Collected ‘and’-signs. (Image © Rebecca Kirch.)

To explore this phenomenon in flight, so to speak, Rebecca catalogued a variety of handwritten ‘and’-signs, including the ampersand, Jeremy and Jamsheed’s looped plus sign, the familiar ‘reversed-3-with-vertical-bar’ (for want of a better term) seen at left, and many other similar marks. Having separated the marks into related groups she superimposed male and female interpretations of each symbol to produce dramatic images such as the one at the top of this post — entrancing visual surveys of various ‘and’-signs that reveal that the “average” ampersand or plus sign is anything but.

Out of this orderly chaos Rebecca created three new ‘and’-symbols, codifying the handwritten forms she had collected into glyphs designed to be compatible with the ubiquitous Helvetica typeface. (You can see them below.) As intriguing as Rebecca’s new marks are, however, I am duty bound to write the same thing I often have to write in these circumstances: these new marks of punctuation have so far failed to make themselves felt in mainstream writing. But while this is, sadly, par for the course in such cases, I think there’s a deeper point to be made. The thing that stuck with me after looking through the messy, very human symbols that Rebecca catalogued along the way to creating her trio of new ‘and’-signs is that we in danger of losing the calligraphic Brownian motion that helped form our alphabet in the first place. In place of the divergent handwritten scripts of an entire species’ worth of letter-writers and note-takers we are increasingly reliant on digital typefaces and emoticons designed and curated by a comparative handful of interested parties — type designers, software companies, and, not least, the Unicode Consortium, which acts as guardian of essentially all the characters that might appear on a computer screen. It is as though we’ve abandoned evolution in favour of intelligent design.

Rebecca Kirch's new 'and'-signs.  (Image © Rebecca Kirch.)

Rebecca Kirch’s new ‘and’-signs. (Image © Rebecca Kirch.)

Still, though, given that the Unicode Consortium is still willing to consider new characters for inclusion in the all-important Unicode standard, things can’t be all that bad, can they? In their own words:

For new characters, [submitters should] provide images clearly showing the characters in use, with their glyph circled or clearly identified, along with a caption that describes the character and the source of the image.

Show us enough examples of a new mark in use, they say, and we’ll consider it. And there are, obviously, many people who still primarily write by hand who might yet invent a new mark, whether deliberately or accidentally, when an existing one is too time-consuming or awkward to write. But are there enough of them? For me at least it has been a long time since I put pen to paper to write anything longer that a to-do list, and I suspect I am not unusual in this respect. All my work ultimately ends up in electronic form, whether for a book or this blog (I daresay much of yours does too, whatever your profession or favoured hobby happens to be), and I find it easiest to stay within the digital realm from start to finish.

The problem with this is that we will, at some point, simply run out of new characters to be sent off to the Unicode Consortium for their stamp of approval. It feels like the critical mass of writers required for a new mark of punctuation to appear in any sort of organic way — the number of pens that must be put to paper on a daily basis to create a credible new ‘#’, ‘@’, or ‘&’ — is ebbing away, if it has not already been lost. Put simply, if we confine ourselves to writing only with our computers and smartphones, the spontaneity of creating new letters and symbols is lost to us. Has the Unicode Consortium approved its last truly novel handwritten character, I wonder?

So, um. This is all a little heavy, and it is certainly not where I expected to end up after pondering Jeremy, Jamsheed, and Rebecca’s handwritten plus signs. But here I am nevertheless. So I would ask of any type designers, calligraphers, or punctuational innovators who are reading this: what do you think? Is it still possible for a new mark of punctuation to come out of the hustle and bustle of everyday handwriting? Is there still hope for an accidental ampersand or a hurried octothorpe to come about and to spread organically, without a deliberate act of creation or promotion? Answers on a postcard, or, preferably, in the comments below!

You can see more of Rebecca’s work at tingedesign.com. Many thanks to her for supplying a copy of her thesis!