Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Shady Characters

The publicity department of W.W. Norton & Company has kindly sent me a review copy of Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. Since anyone can write a book on language where they say whatever they want and no one checks, it's great to read a book about language that takes the subject seriously.

Shady Characters is a history of some of the lesser-known punctuation marks: the pilcrow ¶, the interrobang ‽, the # (whatever it's called), the ampersand &, the @, the asterisk *, the dagger †, the hyphen ‑, the dash —, the manicule ☞, quotation marks “”, and various marks that have been proposed to indicate irony and sarcasm.

Giving us the history of all these marks is a tall order, and Houston treats it seriously. This book has 68 pages of endnotes. Houston is careful to separate evidence from speculation: if an origin is speculative, Houston is careful to say so. Punctuation is a subject that gets some people very worked up, but Houston is admirably objective.

I learned so much from this book. It is a wonderfully entertaining trip into the worlds of typography, programming, design, Tironian notes, 17th century novels, the history of footnotes, and so much more.

How is Gutenberg's bible, the first book made on a printing press, so painstakingly justified? Why did the interrobang fall out of use? Which Latin word is the @ symbol a probable abbreviation of? What is the etymology of pilcrow? Why does English use quotation marks and French use guillements «»? What is the earliest proposal for an irony mark? What is the connection between the asterisk and baseball? What is the connection between dash the mark, and dash the swearword? All of these questions are answered.

There is one point that Houston doesn't address, and which I wish he had addressed: the relationship between smart quotes “” and straight quotes "".

Houston's objectivity means that his animosity toward the hyphen-minus jumps out as weird. There are a group of hyphens and dashes of various sizes (the hyphen ‐, the en dash –, the em dash —, the quotation dash ―, and the figure dash ‒), each of which has a specific use, and the hyphen-minus (-) replaced all of them on the typewriter keyboard. Houston calls the hyphen-minus “an ugly chimera” and complains about “the havoc it has wreaked on grammar and typography for more than a century”. This is at odds with his normally even-handed style. There is no mention of how it has perhaps simplified matters by replacing a confusing group of marks!

There are numerous illustrations throughout the book, usually images of manuscripts that show early uses of the marks in question. Unfortunately, a lot of the time the size of the image is too small for me to make anything out. Close-ups on parts of the images would have been helpful.

My favourite part of this book comes in the chapter on the asterisk. The Alexandrian scholar Aristarchus of Samothrace devised a system of three symbols to mark up text. One was a straight horizontal line, called the obelus (from Greek ὀβελός "roasting spit"). The others were the diple (διπλῆ "double") and the asterisk (ἀστερίσκος "little star"), and together these three are known as Aristarchian symbols. This made me wish I'd written this book, so I could call it Asterisk and Obelus.

Houston has an article in the New Yorker where he succinctly writes on the history of #, ¶, &, ☞, and >.


Jonathon Owen said...

Asterisk and Obelus would be a great name for a book. Or any number of things, really.

Keith Houston said...

Thanks for the review! It hadn't occurred to me that I was being overly harsh towards the hyphen-minus - perhaps I've spent too long bending MS Word to my em-dash will.

goofy said...

Keith, it's a small thing, but I noticed it because it seemed like the only time you were critical of a punctuation mark. Anyway, it's a great book!

Faldone said...

It would have to be Asterisk and Obelus: Double Trouble

mahendra singh said...

Thanks for bring this fascinating book to my attention. The hyphen-minus is a typesetter's abomination because it is so optically small that it gets lost in thickets of type. One wants a dingbat to be just so, neither so big that it attracts undue attention, or so small that is mistaken for an ink hickey or similar error.

I'm a staunch em (mutton) dash man and eschew the en (nut) dash.

You bet, Gutenberg's typesetting was amazing … semitic justification saved this typesetter's skin many times.