The pilcrow (¶) is the poster child of abandoned punctuation marks. With roots in ancient Greece, the pilcrow started life during the fourth century BC as the paragraphos, a horizontal line drawn in the margin of many a papyrus scroll to indicate that something of interest lay in the corresponding line. The reader was left to determine precisely what that something was.
A modern writer seeking to abbreviate the word “and” will doubtless reach for the ampersand (&). Things were not always thus, however, and for much of its two-thousand-year existence the ampersand was up against a rival mark boasting a conspicuously elevated pedigree. The 7-shaped “Tironian et” was the brainchild of Tiro, secretary to the famed first century BC orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Buoncompagno da Signa, a twelfth century man of letters, took a stab at creating a system of punctuation comprising only two marks: a slash (/) for short pauses and a horizontal line (-) for longer pauses. Da Signa called his marks virgulae, from the Latin virga, meaning “rod,” “staff,” or even “penis.”
For centuries after its invention, punctuation was the province of the reader, not the writer. The average ancient Greek or Roman struggled through texts devoid of commas, periods, and even word spaces, punctuating as they went to help pick apart the words and their meaning. Well into the medieval ages, even after punctuation had been established as the writer’s responsibility, readers continued to annotate their books with symbols to help index and recall the information therein. The manicule (☞)–or, if you prefer, the hand, hand director, pointing hand, pointing finger, pointer, digit, index, or indicator–was a favorite of Renaissance scholars, inked into the margin as a bookmark or aide-mémoire.
When punctuation was first invented by Aristophanes, librarian at Alexandria in the 4th century BC, he suggested that readers could use middle (·), low (.), and high points (˙) to punctuate writing according to the rules of rhetoric. Despite this, it took another two millennia before the eponymous rhetorical question got its own mark of punctuation. Worried that his readers would not catch such a subtle figure of speech, in the late sixteenth century the English printer Henry Denham created the percontation mark–a reversed question mark–to address the problem.
Don Draper has nothing on Martin K. Speckter. The head of his own advertising agency, and with the Wall Street Journal on the books, in 1962 Speckter tried to sell the world a new mark of punctuation. Writing in “Type Talks,” Madison Avenue’s journal of typography, Speckter described the “interrobang” (‽) as a combination of a question mark and an exclamation point (or “bang,” as printers called it) and said that it should be used to punctuate an excited or rhetorical question.
The need to punctuate irony–whether a rhetorical question that is not a question at all, or a common-or-garden sarcastic quip–runs deep in the veins of writers and typophiles.
Perhaps the most convincing modern irony mark is a European invention. Commissioned in 2007 for the Dutch national book festival, the ironieteken was created by Bas Jacobs at the type foundry Underware. His graceful zig-zag exclamation mark was designed to blend in with existing marks of punctuation and to be easily written by hand.
Keith Houston is the author of the new book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.