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:

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Miscellany № 41: a cornucopia for Christmas

Time for one last grab-bag of punctuation goodies before Christmas and New Year. First comes a story courtesy of the American TV quiz show Jeopardy (yes, I’m as surprised as you are). The basic idea behind Jeopardy, for the uninitiated (as I was, until my wife made me watch Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketches), is that contestants are given the answer to a question and must tell the host, Alex Trebek, the corresponding question.

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Miscellany № 38: the alternate history of the telephone keypad

Publication and its attendant excitements have taken up much of the past month, and I have a stack of punctuation-related matters to catch up with. Without further ado, let’s get on with the show!


Readers of Shady Characters (whether in book or blog form) will recall that the octothorpe (#) came by its rather esoteric name courtesy of the creation, in the 1950s, of the push-button telephone keypad. The engineers of Bell Labs had designed a 4 x 4 grid of buttons where each row and column was assigned a unique audible frequency; when pressed, a button produced a tone composed of the frequencies corresponding to its location on the grid. Early production handsets had only ten buttons — the digits 0–9, arranged in the familiar inverse-calculator layout — while later versions added ‘*’ and ‘#’ buttons to yield a neat 3 x 4 grid. (Military and other speciality handsets used all four columns.) The story, as told by two separate Bell Labs employees, goes that there was no unambiguous name for the ‘#’ and so, for the purposes of training and documentation, it was necessary to invent one: “octothorpe” was the result, and its place on the soon-to-be ubiquitous telephone keypad assured its survival into the future.

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