Day 746: Punctuation – Not Just For Cartoon Speech-Bubble Swears

originally published January 15, 2014

Today I’m going to opt for a markedly insular approach and write about some of the tools I keep scattered about my proverbial writing desk. I’m not talking about my retread and tired metaphors, nor the antiquated pop culture references that pepper my daily prose (though those are just dyn-o-mite!). On a much simpler scale, these are the trinkets that keep my writing from running on like a babbling drunkard or looking like a poorly-phrased ee cummings poem.


“Shit,” you are no doubt thinking. “He’s going to write about punctuation? What happened to writing about stolen brains or lousy movies?” I know, I get that. But had I known just how interesting the topic of punctuation might be, I might not have put off writing about it for 746 days. There’s a world of intrigue in those little blips and squiggles. Well maybe not intrigue in the spy-thriller-mystery-explosions sense of the word. But certainly enough to merit three and a half minutes of your attention.

As you can see, the symbol for the ampersand has evolved from a lower-case ‘h’ that has been slapped on the back to a half-finished bathroom-stall piece of dink graffiti to a prototype wheelchair access placard, and eventually into the little swoosh we know and love today. Its origins are a stylistic scrunching of the Latin ‘ET’, meaning (unsurprisingly) ‘and’. Though we have now relegated the mighty ampersand to a shorthand and/or stylish alternative (“Hall & Oates” is so much snazzier than “Hall and Oates”), the little guy used to have a place in our alphabet, right at the end.

Only about 150 years ago, while reciting the ABCs children would end with “and per se and”. “Per se” means “by itself”, so the addition of the last letter in the list had to be prefaced by pointing out that ‘&’ stands on its own curved feet, and is not technically a letter on its own. “And per se and” was eventually shmushed into the symbol’s name, ampersand.

Here’s a handy little ampersand tip for you. According to Writer’s Guild of America rules, if you see two names separated by a ‘&’ in a screenplay credit, the writers worked in collaboration. If they are separated by ‘and’ then one writer tweaked another’s script, and the two may have never even met.

Growing up, I had no idea what that funky little encircled ‘a’ was doing above the ‘2’ on my typewriter. There was no Twitter, no email, and no functional use for the thing. The symbol’s original use was as an abbreviation of ‘arroba’, a unit of weight in Spanish and Portuguese equivalent to 25 pounds. Its first documented use was in a document, referring to the price of an @ of wine in Peru.

Some believe its shorthand for the word ‘at’ comes from mercantile shorthand for ‘each at’. So ten guppies @ $5 would cost you $50, whereas ten guppies at $5 would only cost you $5. That’s a pretty good price for guppies.

Another theory is that the symbol was borrowed from the French ‘à’, which means ‘at’. Although how an accent-grave gets swirled around a letter I have no idea. It looks pretty, I guess.

That pointy little hat above the ‘6’ on your keyboard is known as a caret. This is another hand-me-down from Latin, as its name translates to “it lacks.” This is why the caret is used as a proofreading mark, to point out where the author missed a key piece of punctuation or a letter or word. In written French and Portuguese, the symbol also shows up as a circumflex accent above a vowel, which I only mention because it sounds like a piece of home gym equipment.

Unless you’re knuckles-deep in programming with C++, Pascal or some other programming language, you probably won’t use many carets in your lifetime.

When I was growing up, this was a number sign. Once every company on the surface of the planet (and most headquartered below) switched to a touch-tone operator, it became the pound symbol. It turns out, this may actually be the hole from whence this little punctuation doodad first crawled. The abbreviation for ‘pound’ (as in weight, not British bucks) was ‘lb’. But printers didn’t want any confusion between the lowercase ‘L’ and the number ‘1’, so a new character was created with a horizontal line:

To avoid confusion (hey, it could be ‘1b’ with an eyelash resting on top), it was simplified to two slashes (/ /) with an equals sign on it, or the tic-tac-toe scribble we use today. In the UK this is never called a pound sign. They have enough to deal with in differentiating between ‘lb’ and ‘£’. It’s a hash. I have no idea what they do with it, since the British typically prefer ‘no.’ as an abbreviation for ‘number’.

But that’s how it came to be known as a hashtag. We’re lucky the engineers at Bell Labs in the 60’s didn’t get to name our Twitter conventions, or we’d refer to this with their made-up term: ‘octothorp.’

The percentage symbol evolved through mid-millennium Italian texts, from its origins as ‘per cento’ (meaning ‘per hundred’) to the easily-scrawled sign above your keyboard’s number 5. Per Cento was shortened first to a ‘p’ with a slash through its dangling foot, and the number 100 after it. Then around the year 1435, this gets truncated again to a barely legible ‘pc’ with a circle hovering above its flamboyant end-swoosh, like so:

This became two circles and a line, not unlike the divided-by sign:

Speaking of which, that symbol is officially called an obelus, and it’s derived from the same Ancient Greek word that gives us ‘obelisk’. It originated as a proof-reading tool, for scouring the works of Homer or the Gospel and pointing out sections that appeared corrupted or somehow bogus. In the classic algebra best-seller from 1659, Teutsche Algebra, the symbol was first used in its modern mathematical sense.

Alright, so the history of punctuation isn’t quite as dramatic as Einstein’s brain bits. But we take these things for granted; they sit on our keyboard, awaiting our attention so they can act as our collectively-accepted shorthand. They all had to come from somewhere.

Hey, I’ve got a thousand of these things to write. I may as well use a few to indulge my own little curiosities.

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