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Throwing Light on Shady Characters

Some punctuation marks hog the spotlight, like the versatile, omnipresent comma and the flirty, oft-abused semicolon. Question marks and exclamation marks — the good cop, bad cop of punctuation — are forever in your face. The period subtly but emphatically makes its presence known, while parentheses are off gossiping and tittering like teenage girls. These are the usual suspects most people think of when it comes to punctuation.

But the range of non-word squiggles is larger than you would think, and Keith Houston's new book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks plumbs the history of these background players in the theater of language. Houston discusses familiar punctuation marks (the asterisk, the hyphen, the dash, the ampersand) and bizarre oddities (the interrobang, the SarcMark) alike, showing how even the most literally marginal marks have a story to tell. As Houston puts it, "Every character we write or type is a link to the past, and every shady character doubly so."

Houston begins this book by talking about the pilcrow, which you may know as the paragraph mark (¶), a symbol that pops up after line breaks in Microsoft Word but is usually hidden. Houston uses the pilcrow, which he calls "the quintessential shady character," to demonstrate the careful historical work he will perform throughout this book. Like most books, Shady Characters is a symptom of obsession, and you can really feel Houston's passion come through as he waxes poetic about the pilcrow, which he emphasizes "...is not a mere typographic curiosity, useful only for livening up a coffee-table book on graphic design or pointing the way to a paragraph in a mortgage deed, but a living character with its roots in the earliest days of punctuation." Houston then explores those roots, touching on many interesting facts, including the primordial predecessors of the comma, colon, and period.

While looking at shady characters and their diverse roles, Houston's focus shifts from ancient Greece to social media. The contemporary material should catch the attention of many readers, particularly chapters on two punctuation marks that have taken on huge prominence in our digital world: @ and # (in English, the at sign and pound sign). I was interested to learn that the pound sign (also known as the octothorpe) has a history of signifying weight, a fact that demystifies its name. As with word history, punctuation history is a bizarre, twisting story, and Houston is a capable tour guide.

Houston's book is a record of odd failures as well as odd successes, both of which are illuminating. Though the Internet has accelerated interest in the interrobang — an unholy hybrid of the exclamation and question mark — it dates from 1962. The Internet has simply allowed what Houston calls a "cult punctuation mark" to spread. Some punctuation marks have had even less fame — and reason for existence. For example, the chapter on punctuation marks designed to designate irony or sarcasm was an eye-opener. In the spirit of Cosmo Kramer's crackpot schemes, some people don't let logic or practicality get in the way of their punctuation proposals. The SarcMark is the most successful such idea, which is not saying much.

I love to use dashes — really, I do — so I was extremely intrigued by the chapter on the history of this dramatic little line. My interests in dashes and euphemisms came together when I learned that the practice of using dashes to bleep out parts of objectionable words led to dash being used as an amelioration of damn.  This 1800 use is the Oxford English Dictionary's oldest example of such a use: "But dash it, Lady Nelly, what do make thee paint thy vace all over we rud ochre zoo?" This 1844 example is a euphemistic treasure, using two euphemisms for damn: "Dash my buttons, Moll — I'll be darn'd if I know." Readers with different preferences and obsessions will surely be tickled by different parts of this book.

This feels like the part of the review where I point out a shortcoming, and I do have one gripe: Houston lacks the wit and accessibility of a Ben Yagoda or David Crystal. Those word mavens have a talent for making the trivial come to life through understated humor and lively prose, and they've spoiled me a little. This book needed a little more charm in the writing. It's kind of a tough book to get through.

That doesn't lessen the accomplishment, though. Shady Characters is a unique and precise map of uncharted territory. Whether you should buy it or not depends on how much you care about that territory. I feel like anyone might enjoy a book like Crystal's The Story of English in 100 Words, but Shady Characters is definitely not for everyone. It's a must-read for hardcore typographical scholars and enthusiasts, though.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Monday September 16th 2013, 10:24 AM
Comment by: Clay A. (Washington, CT)
As bad as any error of punctuation: "a symbol that pops up after line breaks in Microsoft Word…." Mustn't confuse the general workings of computer operating systems with the specific anomalies of software applications. The '¶' (Pilcrow, Paragraph Symbol) is included as character #182 in the extended ASCII standard, a standard used by pretty much all operating systems.

Since the dark ages of binary computing, man (and woman) has needed a way to translate the computer's digital bits of '1's and '0's into alphabetical characters (a problem for pictograph-based languages). The ASCII standard (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) began with 8-bits, 128 characters, and was later extended to 16-bits, 256 characters, enough to include indispensable symbols, like the pilcrow.

Furthermore, every character one enters on a computer keyboard must be represented as a digital code so that the operating system can pass the information along to whatever software application you happen to have active. Typing a Return, enters ASCII code 182, which doesn't look like anything, but breaks whatever line of text you happen to be typing. It's a so-called "hidden character" in the parlance of most word processing applications, and if you choose the command to Show Hidden Characters (or whatever your program chooses to call this), every ASCII 182 becomes visible as a pilcrow—it's like magic!

In the future, I hope you will not speak of Microsoft Word as if it were the de facto standard of word processing. You see, digital pedants can be as obsessive about detailed accuracy as any punctuation, grammar, or language usage pedant. And since this should be cause for celebration, I think I'll eat some pancakes, now.
-Professor Walrus
Monday September 16th 2013, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Sue B.Top 10 Commenter
Coming from the WordPerfect world (about a century and a half ago), I'm with Professor Walrus! Details matter, and if you're going to write an article about origins and histories, do so thoroughly. :)
Friday September 27th 2013, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Ms. Kundu (India)
What does the author mean by "mortgage deed"? If anybody could please explain, I'll be glad.

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