Shady Characters

You don’t have to be a typography nerd to enjoy this book, as long as you read it slowly and carefully.

Keith Houston (who is not a professional typographer) has written a surprisingly lively book with the title Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. You can think of it as a history of punctuation, but it’s actually much more than that. Here is an example, a page about the manicule (the character you see here that looks just like a pointing hands but is actually a pseudo-punctuation mark). Read it slowly and savor the language:

So what else is in Houston’s book? Instead of what might be the obvious chapters — the period, the comma, the exclamation point, the question mark — you’ll find a much more interesting set of chapters: the pilcrow, the interrobang, the octothorpe, … wait, wait! What are all these words? Weird people like me know two of those three, but even I, a typography nerd, have never heard of the pilcrow, although it turns out that we all know the symbol with that name even if we don’t know the name of the symbol: ¶. (Like that example of chiasmus?) No, that’s not a paragraph sign, it’s a pilcrow!

Moving on after the octothorpe (which you Twitter users probably call a hash mark), we have the ampersand, then the @ symbol, the asterisk and dagger (together in one chapter), the hyphen, the dash (no, it’s not another name for the hyphen!, so it’s a separate chapter), the aforementioned manicule, and the thorny issue of quotation marks (ever read a French novel in French? notice the difference between American and British uses of single and double quotation marks?). And finally we have a three-part chapter on irony and sarcasm, perfect topics for the modern age. Each chapter provides a wealth of historical info about a symbol and related concepts, from images of ancient manuscripts to controversies on the internet. Each chapter also contains lovely phrases, some of which are amusingly self-referential, such as “an interminable concatenation of polysyllabic sesquipedalianisms.” As I say, much more than punctuation.

While I was slowly reading this book, a great post about it appeared in Language Hat. Go read it! And then read the book.




Categories: Books, Linguistics