As I mentioned last week, email subscriptions are changing. If you subscribe to Shady Characters by email, or you’d like to do so, please read last week’s post to learn more. This will be the last post that goes out to existing email subscribers, so please make sure you update your subscription soon!
(If you’ve already updated your subscription to the new system, why not take a look back at my recent visit to Vindolanda, a fort near Hadrian’s Wall?)
Feedburner, the Google service that Shady Characters uses to send email notifications of new posts, is closing down its email service. As such, I’ve updated the subscription widget at the bottom of the site to use WordPress.com’s email subscription feature instead.
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Hadrian’s Wall is quite a thing. Its construction is linked to a visit to Britain, in 122 CE, of the Emperor Hadrian, although work may have been underway before then. Conventional wisdom says that Hadrian wanted to keep the restive Celts out of Roman Britain to the south; another interpretation is that the wall was a means to collect tolls and duties from whomever might have cause to pass through it, Celt or otherwise. Whatever the case, the finished wall was eighty miles long, running almost from coast to coast, and it became the abiding symbol of Roman rule in the island of Britain.1,2
Vindolanda is just a mile south of Hadrian’s Wall. It’s the site of a Roman auxiliary fort and an associated village, or vicus, both of which predated the wall but subsequently became part of its supporting infrastructure. The fort was rediscovered some time before 1702, which was the year that a doctor named Christopher Hunter3 described:
a square room, strongly vaulted above, and paved with large stones set in lime, and under this a lower room, whose roof was supported by rows of square pillars of about half a yard high: the upper room had […] two chimneys on each side of every corner or square [.]
All of which sounds exactly like the warm room, or tepidarium, of a Roman bathhouse, with a hypocaust below the floor and chimneys within the walls to convey hot air from the furnace.4
Despite the find, little happened in the way of excavations until the land on which the fort sat was acquired in 1814 by one Anthony Hedley, an Anglican priest and enthusiastic amateur antiquarian. Hedley’s purchase saved what remained of the fort from the stone-robbing and looting that blighted much of the rest of the wall, with Hedley himself rescuing a Roman gravestone from the attentions of an over-eager tenant farmer in 1818. Many more finds would follow and, since the 1930s, the site has been subject to near-continuous archaeological investigation.4
Today, Vindolanda is run by a charitable trust as combination of an open-air museum and an ongoing archaeological excavation.5 It’s a great place to visit if you’re in the vicinity — some of the nearby sites on Hadrian’s Wall itself have a more dramatic outlook, but the scale of the fort and vicus, along with a well-presented museum that houses nearly a century’s worth of archaeological finds, mean that Vindolanda more than holds its own.
On a recent visit, I couldn’t help but linger at a collection of Roman inscriptions — well, replica inscriptions, since the originals are in nearby Chesters Museum — originally discovered by Anthony Hedley himself. Together, they provide a fascinating snapshot of how stonemasons in Roman Britain approached writing and punctuation.
First up is the gravestone that Hedley found in 1818. It’s dated to between 43 to 410 CE, which is archaeology’s way of saying “we don’t know when it was made but we’re pretty sure it came from Roman-occupied Britain”,6 and it marks the death of one Cornelius Victor.
The inscription reads:
Corn(elius) Victor s(ingularis) c(onsularis)
mil(itavit) ann(os) XXVI civ(is)
Pann(onius) fil(ius) Saturni-
ni p(rimi) p(ilaris) vix(it) an(nos) LV d(ies) XI
Or, translated and with its abbreviations expanded,
To the spirits of the departed; Cornelius Victor, singularis consularis, served for 26 years, a Pannonian tribesman, son of Saturninus, a senior centurion, and lived for 55 years, 11 days. His wife had this set up.”7
All the usual quirks are there: uppercase letters only; dots between words; abbreviations for familiar phrases; too-long words broken across lines. It’s a time capsule of Roman writing customs.
With the gravestone are three altarpieces that all display the same traits:
Moreover, all three show a quirk of Roman numerals that I hadn’t previously thought much about. The inscription for the first, for example, reads as follows:
Sacred to the Genius of the commandant’s house Pituanius Secundus, prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls, (set this up).8
The thing I found interesting is that the number four is rendered not as “IV”, as I had expected, but rather in the “IIII” style found on some clocks.* “IIII” is said to be additive and “IV” subtractive, but very little (that I can find) has been written about when or why the Romans switched from one to the other. The only real convention seems to have been that the additive notation was preferred for inscriptions, especially official ones.9 The colosseum, for example, used “IIII” rather than “IV” for some of its gates.10 Beyond that, the choice seems to have come down to taste and/or context, even within the same document.
I’d love to know if any readers can shed some light on this!
The featured photo, released under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence, was taken by Mike Bishop. In common with many heritage sites, Vindolanda’s finances have suffered during the past year. Please consider making a donation to their survival appeal.
combines a truthful statement with what is known as a grawlix — a pile of non-alphanumeric characters intended to represent (and censor) a profanity.
I’ve been meaning to write about grawlixes for what is probably a few years now, but which, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus catastrophe, feels more like a few decades. The word (though not the typographical practice) was coined by the American newspaper cartoonist Mort Walker, whose bona fides derive from his creation, in 1950, of a comic strip called Beetle Bailey that he continued to produce until his death in 2018. (A 1954 spin-off, Hi and Lois, is carried on by his sons.)1 Walker introduced the grawlix and its relatives to the world at large in a 1975 book called Backstage at the Strips that, in turn, made reference to an earlier “presentation” concerning the grawlix:2,3
In a rather pedantic presentation I made to the members of the National Cartoonists Society called “Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes,” I wrote:
As the world begins to recognize that cartooning is an art form, I have become increasingly aware of the world’s lack of knowledge about our profession. They are exhibiting our work now in the Louvre, the Smithsonian, and the Metropolitan, and they are discussing cartoons in broad flowing terms such as “social significance,” “illuminated narrative,” and “primitive commentary,”* but not one of them knows the difference between such basic comicana as the “waftarom” and the “indotherm.”
Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to track down the “presentation” Walker quotes from. As far as I can tell, he may have published a version of it in the January 1969 issue of The Cartoonist, the magazine of The National Cartoonists Society. There are archives out there which have a copy, but work on the new book has prevented me from investigating further.4,5
Walker later codified his lexicon of comicana in, well, The Lexicon of Comicana, published in 1980.6 Here, he goes into detail. “Briffits” are little clouds that show where a fast-moving object (such as a fist) started its arc; “hites”, “dites”, or “vites” are lines showing the direction (horizontal, diagonal or vertical) in which that object moved. A fragrant object emits a “waftarom”; a hot one, “indotherms”. Someone with little starbursts called “squeans” orbiting their head is tipsy; a tornado-like “spurl” means they’re plastered.7 “Grawlix” was just one of a troupe of similar neologisms invented by Walker to describe a wide array of cartooning conventions.
But here’s the thing. A grawlix is not a collection of typographic characters — at least not the way that Walker defined it. In Lexicon, he writes:
A variety of acceptable curse words are at the cartoonist’s disposal. He may throw in a new one from time to time, but the real meat of the epithet must always contain plenty of jarns, quimps, nittles, and grawlixes[.]
In Walker’s jargon, a “jarn” is a spiral or similar mark (for example, 🌀); a “plewd” is a planet- or moon-shaped mark (☾, 🪐); a “nittle” is a star or star-like mark (☆, ✻, etc.); and, finally, the grawlix of legend is an illegible scrawl intended to suggest but not actually communicate a written word. All of these come together, says Walker, in “maledicta”, or curse words, which can be made up of some or all of these components.6
In other words, the thing we call a grawlix is not a grawlix; it is a maledictum. To make matters worse, the more “grawlixes” we create with our keyboards the farther we travel from Walker’s original definition. We can find halfway-decent jarns, plewds and nittles in Unicode’s depths, but without grabbing a pen or a painting app, we cannot, by definition, create a grawlix.
What should we call them instead? The late Gwillim Law, who excavated a host of maledicta for his compendious web page “Grawlixes Past and Present”,8 stuck with “grawlix”. Over at UPenn’s indispensible Language Log blog, they’ve settled on Ben Zimmer’s portmanteau of “obscenicon”.† I’m partial to “maledictum”, but, let’s face it, that is a hopelessly pretentious term for a cartoon swear word.
What say you? Answers on a postcard, or, alternatively, in the comments. And please, if you can reproduce them, show us some of your favourite grawlixes / obscenicons / maledicta!
As someone who has only recently started reading Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, I would like to say that I, too, am bursting with lofty, borrowed thoughts on subjects such as the continuum of realism in comics. Do yourself a favour and order a copy today. ↢
There are too many relevant Language Log posts to list, but here, from oldest to newest, is a selection of the most apposite:
It has been a long time coming, but I’m pleased to announce that I’m working on a new book. Empire of the Sum: The Rise and Reign of the Pocket Calculator* will be published by W. W. Norton in late 2022 or thereabouts, and Brendan Curry will take the editing reins once again.
Empire of the Sum is a bit of a departure from Shady Characters but perhaps not a million miles away from The Book, in that I’ll be using an object so common that it often fades into the background to look at the wider ~context~ in which it was born, lived, and (sort of) died. Here’s how I put it in the proposal for Empire, after much help and encouragement from Laurie Abkemeier:
The calculator — electronic or mechanical, pocketable or otherwise — has a strong claim to being one of the most pervasive technological innovations of the twentieth century. For a hundred years, calculators were fixtures of classrooms, offices, lecture theatres, laboratories, and even space flights. To an astronaut, a calculator was a ticket home. To an engineer, it was as natural a tool as a drawing board or an HB pencil. To a tradesman, it was as familiar as a screwdriver. For a student, it was a trinket to be decorated with stickers — or dreaded as a totem of math class. Even now, in the age of the smartphone, everyone has a calculator in a certain kitchen drawer, kept company by takeaway menus, Sellotape, and half-burned birthday candles.
Many similar technologies in the twilight of their lives boast communities of ardent supporters. Vinyl collectors, film photographers, classic car owners, ham radio enthusiasts: bump into one at a party and get ready to learn a lot about record players, medium format cameras, or bias-ply tires. But where are the Little Professor boosters, the TI-81 bores? There is a small, close-knit community of calculator collectors out there, but the reality is that the calculator doesn’t need them to survive. Even if it no longer lives in your backpack or briefcase, the calculator has ascended to a kind of silicon afterlife, living on as an app on your iPhone, your Galaxy, or your ThinkPad. The pocket calculator may have disappeared from daily view, but its soul is still very much with us.
Empire of the Sum will chart the long rise and sudden fall of the pocket calculator and its ancestors. Each chapter takes a calculator — the ancient abacus, the ingenious slide rule, the sleek Programma 101, the space-bound HP-35, and more — and weaves them together into a story spanning thousands of years. We’ll meet medieval Scottish lairds, Restoration spies, and Cold War astronauts. We’ll hear pebbles rustle on Mesopotamian sand and watch electrons flash across a vacuum. We’ll watch the development of the hydrogen bomb and the rise of the microchip, the first powered by calculators, the second powering them. And finally, we’ll see the calculator fall from grace as the home computer eats its lunch.
So there you have it! I hope that has piqued your interest, and please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions. I’m also interested to know if you have any stories or anecdotes about calculators of any kind. Slide rules, abacuses, adding machines, graphing calculators, you name it; if you have a story, please do drop me a line or leave a comment here.