The Curious History of Punctuation: Author Reveals the Beginnings of the #, ¶, ☞, and More

ShadyCharactersAll things we humans use, from our advanced mobile phones to our very arms and legs, reached their cur­rent states through a process of evo­lu­tion. The same, nat­u­ral­ly, goes for our punc­tu­a­tion marks. These tools we use to sep­a­rate, con­nect, or draw atten­tion to our words and sen­tences had dif­fer­ent forms and uses in bygone times, and Scot­land-based med­ical visu­al­iza­tion soft­ware pro­gram­mer Kei­th Hous­ton has tak­en it upon him­self to trace paths through all of them. In the intro­duc­tion to his his­to­ry-of-punc­tu­a­tion blog Shady Char­ac­ters, he recounts his unlike­ly source of inspi­ra­tion in Eric Gill’s Essay on Typog­ra­phy: “my inter­est was piqued by the unusu­al char­ac­ter resem­bling a reversed cap­i­tal ‘P’ — ‘¶’ — which pep­pered the text at appar­ent­ly ran­dom inter­vals.” This lit­tle-dis­cussed mark, called a pil­crow, led Hous­ton to ask the sort of ques­tions that dri­ve his project: “How did the pilcrow’s curi­ous reverse‑P form come about? What were the roots of its pithy, half-famil­iar name? What caused it to fall out of use, and hav­ing done just that, why did Eric Gill see fit to place them seem­ing­ly at ran­dom in his only pub­lished work on typog­ra­phy? What, in oth­er words, was the pil­crow all about?”


In a recent New York­er post, Hous­ton works toward the answers by look­ing back to the pil­crow’s pre­cur­sors. “Before there was any oth­er punc­tu­a­tion there was the para­graphos—from the Greek para-, ‘beside,’ and graphein, ‘write’,” he explains. “A sim­ple hor­i­zon­tal stroke placed in the left mar­gin beside a line of text, the para­graphos was used in ancient Greece to call atten­tion to con­cep­tu­al changes in an oth­er­wise unbro­ken block of text: a new top­ic, per­haps, or a new stan­za in a poem.” This, over the cen­turies, became the pil­crow, just as “the Latin abbre­vi­a­tion ‘lb,’ for the Roman term libra pon­do, or ‘pound weight,’ ” turned into the #, or the hash mark, or — bet­ter yet —the octothor­pe. As for ☞, that lit­tle hand, Hous­ton tells us its prop­er name: man­icule, “tak­en,” nat­u­ral­ly enough, “from the Latin man­icu­lum, or ‘lit­tle hand.’ ” With ear­li­est use found in the Domes­day Book of 1086, the man­icule, “a mark that read­ers drew to call out points of inter­est,” enjoyed great preva­lence until the fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry print­ing press came along, when, “with print­ed ver­sions of the symbol—and of oth­er ref­er­ence marks such as * and †—now avail­able to writ­ers, ‘autho­rized’ notes began to spring up in the mar­gins, encroach­ing upon the space once avail­able to the read­er.”


Hous­ton’s work on the his­to­ry of punc­tu­a­tion has now tak­en the form of a book: Shady Char­ac­ters: The Secret Life of Punc­tu­a­tion, Sym­bols & Oth­er Typo­graph­i­cal Marks. But you can still read a wealth of his schol­ar­ship on the pil­crow, octothor­pe, the man­icule, and oth­er sym­bols both cur­rent and for­got­ten, on his blog, all clear­ly orga­nized on its table of con­tents. Who could turn down that good day’s read­ing‽

via The New York­er

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cor­mac McCarthy’s Three Punc­tu­a­tion Rules, and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les PrimerFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • M.R. Stringer says:

    Ter­rif­ic! u2013 how mar­vel­lous it must be to be a researcher and come up with this kind of fas­ci­nat­ing mate­r­i­al …nnI hope this work will stave off the death (as the next step from today’s dearth) of punctuation.nnI wrote a book, a mem­oir, and my pub­lish­er and I argued very hap­pi­ly about the punc­tu­a­tion for months. :-)

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