Miscellany № 89: 2020, year of the asterisk

The asterisk is old. Really old. Granted, it is not 5,000 years old, as Robert Bringhurst claims in the otherwise impeccable Elements of Typographic Style1 (Bringhurst confuses it with a star-like cuneiform mark that represents “deity” or “heaven”2), but it has more than two millennia under its belt nonetheless. I go into greater detail in the Shady Characters book, but the abridged version of the asterisk’s origin story goes something like this.


In the third century BCE, at Alexandria in Egypt, a librarian named Zenodotus was was struggling to edit the works of Homer into something approaching their original form. I say a librarian, but really Zenodotus was the librarian, the first in a long line to be employed at Alexandria by the Ptolemaic pharaohs.3 Many spurious additions, deletions and alterations had been made to the Odyssey and Iliad since the time of their composition, but Zenodotus lacked the tools to deal with them. As such, he started drawing a short dash (—) in the margin beside each line he considered to be superfluous, and, in doing so, inaugurated the field of literary criticism.4 Named the obelos, or “roasting spit”, in the seventh century Isidore of Seville captured the essence of Zenodotus’s mark when he wrote that “like an arrow, it slays the superfluous and pierces the false”.5

The asterisk, in turn, was created by one of Zenodotus’s successors. In the second century BCE, Aristarchus of Samothrace introduced an array of new critical symbols: the diple (>) called out noteworthy features in the text; the diple periestigmene (⸖) marked lines where Aristarchus disagreed with Zenodotus’s edits; and, finally, the asteriskos (※), or “little star”, denoted duplicate lines.6,7 Occasionally, Aristarchus paired an asterisk and obelus to indicate lines that belonged elsewhere in the poem.8

Thus the asterisk was born. And right from the beginning, it came with a warning: a text with an asterisk attached to it is not the whole story.


Having survived the intervening millennia with its visual form largely intact, by the medieval period the asterisk had moved into a new role as an “anchor” for readers’ notes: where a reader wanted to link a note scribbled in the margin to a particular passage in the text, a pair of asterisks would do the trick. Later, in printed books, authors used the asterisk to call out their own asides.9

By the twentieth century, the asterisk had become the de facto leader of the footnote clan. In 1953, a lexicographer named Eric Partridge explained that “the following are often used”: ‘*’, ‘†’, ‘**’, ‘‡’ or ‘††’, ‘***’ or ‘’ or ‘⁂’, and finally ‘†††’.10 Things have calmed down a little since Partridge’s time, but ‘*’, ‘†’, and ‘‡’ are still relatively common and even ‘§’, ‘||’ and ‘¶’ appear on occasion. Should a writer’s penchant for footnotes extend past five or six per page, lettered or numbered notes may be a better option and, indeed, the frequency of typographic footnote markers does seem to have waned over the past few decades.


Yet even as the asterisk is used less often as a footnote marker, its implied meaning — that there is more here than meets the eye — is as strong as ever. For American newspapers, merely to use the word “asterisk” is to tarnish its subject by association; for American sports writers, doubly so.

It all goes back to 1961, and a baseball establishment unwilling to see one of its all-time greats toppled from his pedestal. That year, Roger Maris of the New York Yankees had beaten George Herman “Babe” Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a single season — but Maris’s record-breaking season had been eight games longer than Ruth’s record-setting 1927 season. Baseball commissioner Ford Frick announced that:

Any player who has hit more than 60 home runs during his club’s first 154 games would be recognized as having established a new record. However, if the player does not hit more than 60 until after this club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark on the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.

Reporter Dick Young of the New York Daily News is said to have suggested that “Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record. Everybody does that when there’s a difference of opinion.” An asterisk: a little star to diminish Maris’s brilliance on the diamond. Young’s asterisk was never actually employed, but for many years baseball almanacs carried both Maris’s and Ruth’s records side by side.11

Since Maris’s time, the asterisk has become the go-to metaphor for sports writers seeking to hedge some apparently remarkable achievement or another. In the early 2000s, Barry Bonds, one of baseball’s all-time greats, was awarded a plethora of asterisks in the wake of a doping scandal (“Tarnished Records Deserve an Asterisk”;12 “An Asterisk Is Very Real, Even When It’s Not”13). Lance Armstrong, another era-defining athlete, was pelted with asterisks after his own doping revelations (“Armstrong, best of his time, now with an asterisk”;14 “Armstrong: an era of asterisks*”15). The sporting asterisk travels, too: Mo Farah, one of Britain’s most celebrated athletes, has faced questions about his relationship with a disgraced sports doctor (“Sir Mo Farah’s link to a notorious doper leaves an asterisk next to his name”16).

Less often, the asterisk makes itself felt in the news proper. The Boston Globe reported George W. Bush’s contentious victory in the 2000 US presidential election with the headline “Bush Wins Election*”, accompanying it with a subtitle that read “*Pending Gore Challenges, Possible Supreme Court Ruling”.17 More recently, the controversial appointments of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court have both attracted asterisks (“Hirono: Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS seat has ‘big asterisk’”;18 “Welcome, Justice Barrett. Now here’s your asterisk”19). And, needless to say, the president who made those two appointments found himself labelled with an asterisk of his own on the occasion of his impeachment in 2019 (“Now Trump’s legacy bears an asterisk of shame”20). Who’s to say he won’t attract a few more before the 20th of January next year?


But that was then, and this is now. In the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic that continues to rage across the globe, the asterisk has been promoted to the top shelf of the sub-editor’s toolbox and, as a result, headlines on both the back pages and the front are suffering from a rash of little stars. It seemed remiss to let this go without remark, so I present to you a lightly annotated and extremely partial survey of 2020’s asterisk-bearing headlines. Enjoy, and please add your own examples in the comments!

Sports news in the USA

Other news in the USA

Sports news outside the USA

Other news outside the USA

Pre-2020 bonus asterisks


As the little stars continue to roll in, please do take care of yourself. Remember: in 2020, you only have one asterisk.

1.
Robert Bringhurst, “Asterisk”, in The Elements of Typographic Style : Version 3.2, 2008, 303-. 
2.
Samuel Noah Kramer, “The Origin and Development of the Cuneiform System of Writing”, in, 1963, 302-4. 
3.
William Smith, “Zenodotus”, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology., 1849. 
4.
Rudolf. Pfeiffer, “Zenodotus and His Contemporaries”, in, 1968, 105-22. 
5.
Isidore and Stephen Barney A, “Punctuated Clauses (De Posituris)”, in, 2006. 
6.
Rudolf. Pfeiffer, “Aristarchus: The Art of Interpretation”, in, 1968, 210-33. 
7.
“Asterisk”, OED Online, August–2012. 
8.
Kathleen McNamee, “Sigla”, in Sigla and Select Marginalia in Greek Literary Papyri, 1992, 9-. 
9.
M B Parkes, “The Technology of Printing and the Stabilization of the Symbols”, in, 1993, 50-64. 
10.
E Partridge, “Oddments”, in You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies, 1953, 226-. 
11.
Allen Barra, “Roger Maris’s Misunderstood Quest to Break the Home Run Record”, The Atlantic, July–2011. 
12.
Michael Wilbon, “Tarnished Records Deserve an Asterisk”, Washington Post, December–2004. 
13.
Allen Barra, “An Asterisk Is Very Real, Even When It’s Not”, New York Times, May–2007. 
14.
George Vecsey, “Armstrong, Best of His Time, Now With an Asterisk”, New York Times, August–2012. 
15.
Rob Arnold, “Armstrong: An Era of Asterisks*”, Ride Media, 2012. 
16.
Martin Samuel, “Mo Farah’s Link to a Notorious Doper Leaves an Asterisk Next to His Name”, Daily Mail Online, October–2019. 
17.
Michael Kranish and Susan Milligan, “Bush Wins Election*”, Boston Globe, November–2000. 
18.
Victoria Guida, “Hirono: Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS Seat Has ’big asterisk’”, Politico, October–2018. 
19.
George Seeley, “Welcome, Justice Barrett. Now here’s Your Asterisk”, Boston Globe, October–2020. 
20.
Eugene Robinson, “Now Trump’s Legacy Bears an Asterisk of Shame”, Washington Post, December–2019. 

Miscellany № 88½: come for the punctuation, stay for the street signs

My last post, where we took a look at Birmingham’s over-punctuated street signs, stirred up quite a bit of discussion. Rich Greenhill suggested that Birmingham’s commas-and-tilde motif could have come from an abbreviated medieval ‘a’ or, perhaps, “ditto” marks. H James Lucas wondered if the paired commas might be a single inverted comma, used by the ironmonger to save typesetting effort; Brian Inglis took the opposite tack and suggested the commas could have been added purely so the manufacturer could invoice for an extra couple of characters. And, on street signs in general, Korhomme pointed out Bern’s colour-coded street signs, imposed by Napoleon’s invading armies. Read about these and other ideas in the comments from last time round.

Two new readers have since been in touch with more examples of elaborately typeset abbreviations, and I couldn’t keep them to myself.


Dr Cathy Gale (@PlayMakeThink on Twitter, or visit her web site at playmakethink.com) sent in some examples of street signs in Margate, a seaside town in the south east of England. The first one shows what I’m going to call a Birmingham-style abbreviation for “Road”, complete with a dash and a pair of commas:

Street sign show "Road" abbreviated with a dash and two commas
A Margate street sign abbreviated with a dash and two commas. (Image courtesy of Dr Cathy Gale.)

Hold onto your hats, because Dr Gale’s next image has a similar style of abbreviation, only used for the word “Crescent” instead:

Street sign show "Road" abbreviated with a dash and two commas
A Margate street sign abbreviated with a dash and two commas. (Image courtesy of Dr Cathy Gale.)

The fact that “Crescent” doesn’t contain an ‘a’ would suggest that this style of abbreviation isn’t derived from an abbreviated medieval ‘a’, but that’s the only potential explanation I think we can rule out.


George Pollard (@porges on Twitter, or visit porg.es) sent in some examples of similar abbreviations in different contexts. This first one, a hand-painted plaque in Nantucket, Massachusetts, is dedicated to Captain Ahab’s real-life counterpart, also called George Pollard.

Plaque dedicated to Captain George Pollard
A plaque dedicated to Captain George Pollard. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia user “Le grand Cricri”.)

An unexpected intersection of punctuation and Moby Dick — does it get any better than this? And we get four abbreviations for the price of one, even if we make do without the traditional Birmingham dash or tilde.

George also pointed out a pair of uses of the abbreviation “Co.”, for “Company”, on two very different playing card decks. First is this Japanese hanafuda card deck box:

A deck of Japanese "hanafuda" playing cards
A deck of Japanese hanafuda playing cards, showing an abbreviation of the word “Company”. (Image courtesy of George Pollard.)
Playing card showing abbreviation for "Company"
A De La Rue playing card demonstrating an abbreviation of the word “Company”. (Image courtesy of George Pollard.)

Finally, we have this lovely ace of spades shown on an undated card printed by De La Rue of London. Thomas De La Rue got started in business in 1821, making straw hats; within a decade he had moved on to printing playing cards, and the Co. that now bears his name is best known for the high-tech printing of banknotes.


I must thank Dr Cathy Gale and George Pollard for sharing these images. I’m not sure I’ve learned anything more about why some abbreviations are typeset in the Birmingham style, but I’m glad I’ve had the chance to publish these fantastic pictures. Perhaps one of them has jogged your memory? If so, please leave a comment below!

Miscellany № 88: a tale of two signs

Cast-iron street sign for Harborne Road, Birmingham
Cast-iron street sign with an enthusiastic piece of typography for the “Rd.” abbreviation. (Image by the author.)

We moved from London to Birmingham a couple of years ago now, and one of the first things I noticed when we arrived were the street signs: extravagant, cast-iron behemoths far removed from London’s restrained licence plates for buildings. Above is a typical street sign in Edgbaston, our then-new neighbourhood; below is an old-style enamelled sign from Wandsworth, our previous one.

Street sign for Caithness Terrace, Tooting Bec
Street sign for Caithness Terrace, Tooting Bec. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by R~P~M on Flickr.)

Granted, Birmingham’s modern street signs, as used in much of the rest of the city, are significantly less interesting than the black-and-white battleship above, but then the same is also true of London. Birmingham once had standards to maintain; London didn’t.

Anyway, back to the two signs above: useful, legible both. But only the Brummie sign packs in an abbreviation, a tilde and two commas, all while bellowing “God save Queen Victoria!!1!!111” with foam-flecked lips, and for that it is my pick for the coveted Best Street Sign I Have Seen in the Past Two Years award.

Read more

Miscellany № 87: a coronavirus conundrum

In the midst of the ongoing SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, Twitter user @talkporty* got in touch to ask:

Dear @shadychars, you are the only one I can turn to in this situation. I am being hounded by EM-DASHES! Help! How has #covidー19uk become a trending hashtag? Nobody types them in.

And crazier still: paste it in and it seems it is [the] chōonpu symbol instead!1

It isn’t often that international health crises and punctuation intersect, but these are the times in which we find ourselves.


First things first: I tapped on the #covidー19uk hashtag to discover that is indeed it a valid hashtag, and also that a lot of people are using it. Next, I did some copy-and-pasting of my own to confirm that “ー”, a character that looks very much an em dash, is not, in fact, an em dash. As @TalkPorty said, it is the chōonpuAKA the “long sound symbol”,2 AKA Unicode’s KATAKANA-HIRAGANA PRO­LONGED SOUND MARK3 — a dash-like mark used to indicate long vowels in Japan’s katakana and hiragana syllabaries.

How did a dash-like non-dash end up in one of the most common hashtags at a time of global crisis?

At first, I assumed that it must have been a cut-and-paste error. As @TalkPorty suggested, rare is the person who knows how to enter an em dash on the computer’s keyboard, and I wondered if the hashtag’s original creator had perhaps browsed a list of Unicode characters until they found a likely-looking candidate. But that didn’t seem entirely plausible: you have to stray pretty far from Unicode’s Latin alphabet and its accompanying marks before you reach katakana and its punctuation. The idea that this was accidental, or coincidental, didn’t quite fit.

Next, I wondered if it could have been a typo caused by a smartphone’s software keyboard. Perhaps a Twitter user hunting for an em dash alighted on a visually similar mark by mistake. Probably not, I thought, for the same reason as before: if you have your phone set to display a QWERTY keyboard for a Western alphabet, you almost certainly won’t have ready access to the chōonpu. It takes a deliberate effort to switch languages and go hunting to find one.

In summary, someone must have chosen this character deliberately, though I was none the wiser as to why they had done so. In the end, I blundered into what I thought was a plausible solution. Here are my original tweeted replies to @TalkPorty:

Well, that’s weird. I can only imagine that some cut-and-paste or soft keyboard error has gone viral (sorry) along with the hashtag.

If I tap on the hashtag in Twitter’s Android app, I’m given the option to compose a tweet containing that same hashtag. I’d imagine that’s how it’s spreading. #covid-19uk (with a hyphen-minus) is also doing fairly well.

Wait! I lie. #covid-19uk isn’t a valid hashtag! Presumably someone has figured out that KATAKANA-HIRAGANA PROLONGED SOUND MARK can be used to “hyphenate” rather than break apart a hashtag. Very clever.

In other words, it seemed very much as if some savvy tweeter had used the chōonpu — a character that looks like a dash but works more like a letter — to construct a hyphenated term that sneaked past Twitter’s rules for valid hashtags. I left it at that.


As I was writing this post, though, I couldn’t help but wonder why the chōonpu in particular had been used. I’m not a Unicode expert, but it seemed unlikely that there was only one dash-like character among its 143,000 code points that could have been used to pull off this piece of hashtag hacking. Why did this Japanese mark end up in a hashtag otherwise comprised of Latin characters?

Google Japanese keyboard
Google’s Japanese keyboard on an Android phone. The chōonpu is on the right, immediately above the backspace key.

Now, some Japanese computer keyboards have a QWERTY layout, where roman letters are mapped to Japanese symbols in a system called romaji, and so, out of curiosity, I installed Google’s Japanese keyboard4 on my Android phone and took a look at its romaji mode. Right there, beside the ‘L’, was a chōonpu. Could #covidー19uk have been created by a native Japanese speaker with access to a romaji keyboard?

To find out, I used the Who Tweeted it First search engine to search for both #covidー19uk and #covidー19. The latter turned up the earliest tweet by over a fortnight, posted on the 11th of February:

なるほど、翌年のバージョンアップ(変異)にも対応できるのですね。
病名に続きそうな名前つけてしまうなんて、こういうのは普通なの?
#コロナウイルス
#COVIDー195

Well, what do you know? The earliest tweet to use the chōonpu in a #covidー19 hashtag was posted by a Japanese speaker with the Twitter username @spreadnewsxxx. Google’s mostly intelligible translation is as follows:

Indeed, it can handle version upgrades (mutations) the following year. Is it normal to give a name that seems to follow the disease name?
#コロナウイルス
#COVIDー19

Twitter reports that @spreadnewsxxx posted their tweet with an iPhone, whose Japanese keyboard I’m not familiar with, and so I can’t know whether they used the chōonpu for convenience or for its aforementioned hashtag friendliness. Either way, we now have a Patient Zero, if you’ll forgive the expression, in the form of the first use of the hashtag that has been plaguing @TalkPorty. The mystery is solved, or at least diminished.

I’d love to know if any readers have encountered the chōonpu in non-Japanese texts. Is this a common usage? Are its Twitter-defying powers commonly known? Drop me a line in the comments below!

1.
TalkPorty, “Dear @shadychars, You Are the Only One I Can Turn to in This Situation. I Am Being Hounded by EM-DASHES! Help! How Has #covidー19uk Become a Trending Hashtag. Nobody Types Them In. And Crazier Still: Paste It in and It Seems It Is Chōonpu Symbol Instead!”, Twitter, 2020. 
2.
“ー”, Wiktionary, 2020. 
3.
“Unicode Character ’KATAKANA-HIRAGANA PROLONGED SOUND MARK’ (U+30FC)”, FileFormat.Info, 2020. 
4.
Google LLC, “Google Japanese Input”, Google Play, 2020. 
5.
拡散10秒前, “@Trainfo_NEWS なるほど、翌年のバージョンアップ(変異)にも対応できるのですね。 病名に続きそうな名前つけてしまうなんて、こういうのは普通なの? #コロナウイルス #COVIDー19”, Twitter, 2020. 
*
For the curious, Talk Porty is a community discussion forum based in Portobello, a suburb of my old home town of Edinburgh. 

Miscellany № 86: back in the saddle

Well, ✨that was fun✨❗ For now, though, it’s time to work our way through some of the punctuation-related links and news articles that have cropped up during our stay in emojiland. Stick around; there’s some great stuff to come.


First, via the always fascinating Language Hat, comes word of a paper entitled “Pull out all the stops: Textual analysis via punctuation sequences”.1 In it, Darmon, Bazzi et al ask the question: is it possible to identify individual writers using only their punctuation? That is, if you remove the words from a piece of writing, can you mathematically fingerprint the writer by the marks that remain? The answer is a firm “sort of”. I’ll leave you to read the full paper to find out more.


Next up, Russell Harper, editor of the Chicago Manual of Style’s “Shop Talk” blog, delves into breaks in fiction. You know the ones I mean — more significant than a new paragraph but less significant than a new chapter, and typically separated by blank lines, asterisms (* * *), bullets (• • •), or other typographical flourishes. Russell investigates the means by which various authors (or the typographers who designed their books, or perhaps both in concert) chose to set off breaks in their novels with varying degrees of success.


On the subject of significant breaks, I am extremely late in bringing to your attention an intriguing tweet published by Katie Henry back in 2018, but it is too good not to share:

If you ever feel self-conscious about your writing, please know that in 1802, a man named Timothy Dexter published a 9,000-word book with seemingly arbitrary capitalization and literally ZERO punctuation.2

And it gets better. The book in question is called A pickle for the knowing ones, or, Plain truths in a homespun dress,3 and it was self-published by the aforementioned Timothy Dexter as a gift for his friends.4,5 The lucky recipients must have been bamboozled by its contents: Dexter used unpredictable capitalisation and a spelling system of his own invention. What he did not use was punctuation: neither a comma nor a full stop was there to interrupt his stream of thought.5 Here, for reference, is the opening passage, cut off at what seems to the end of a sentence:

Ime the first Lord in the younited States of A mericary Now of Newburyport it is the voise of the peopel and I cant Help it and so Let it goue Now as I must be Lord there will foller many more Lords pretty soune for it dont hurt A Cat Nor the mouse Nor the son Nor the water Nor the Eare then goue on all is Easey Now bons broaken all is well all in Love Now I be gin to Lay the corner ston and the kee ston with grat Remembrence of my father Jorge Washington the grate herow 17 sentreys past before we found so good a father to his shildren and Now gone to Rest6

Well, alright then. As Randy Nelson explains in The Almanac of American Letters, “Literary historians have never been able to decide whether this little book is hoax, lunacy or avant-garde.”5 Certainly, Dexter might have harboured any or all of those motivations. Born a commoner, Dexter styled himself a lord and made a fortune through a series of improbable business deals — among others, he exported coal to the mining mecca of Newcastle during a miners’ strike, and repurposed bed-warming pans as cooking pots for molasses and sold them in the Caribbean. With his money he established a retinue comprising a fortune-teller, a simpleton and a pornographer, and housed them in a mansion surrounded by wooden statues of notable figures. Himself included, of course.4

For the second edition of Pickle (eight would be published), Dexter acknowledged that some readers might have had trouble with his lack of punctuation. Accordingly, he wrote,

the Nowing ones complane of my book the fust edition had no stops I put in A Nuf here and thay may peper and solt it as they plese

Here is that very same peper and solt as it appeared in the fourth edition:

Punctuation marks from Timothy Dexter's "A Pickle for the Knowing Ones"
Timothy Dexter’s punctuational “peper and solt”, taken from the fourth edition of A Pickle for the Knowing Ones. (Image courtesy of archive.org.)

Lastly, reader John Chulick brought to my attention Adam O’Fallon Price’s essay on the em dash, or ‘—’, published in 2018 at The Millions.7* Price explores em dashes in the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Emily Dickinson and others, and I’ll leave it to him to explain why the mark is worth our attention:

For me, there is no punctuation mark as versatile and appealing as the em dash. I love the em dash in a way that is difficult to explain, which is, probably, the motivation of this essay. And my love for it is emphasized by the fact that many writers never, or rarely, use it — even disdain it. It is not, so to speak, an essential punctuation mark, the same way commas or periods are essential. You can get along without it and most people do. I don’t remember being taught to use it in elementary, middle, or high school English classes; I’m not even sure I was aware of it then, and I have no clear recollection of when or why I began to rely on it, yet it has become an indispensable component of my writing.7

On a related note, Stan Carey, another must-follow at Sentence First and Strong Language, also wrote about dashes in 2018. Stan focused on the em dash’s abbreviated sibling, the en dash, and specifically its use to hyphenate compound terms. I remember being tickled at the concept upon learning of it in the Chicago Manual (it is as subtle as it is useful), and Stan more than does it justice at Sentence First. Well worth a read!

1.
Alexandra Darmon N M et al., “Pull Out All the Stops: Textual Analysis via Punctuation Sequences”
2.
Katie Henry, “If You Ever Feel Self-Conscious about Your Writing, Please Know That in 1802, a Man Named Timothy Dexter Published a 9,000-Word Book With Seemingly Arbitrary Capitalization and Literally ZERO Punctuation.”, Twitter, 2018. 
3.
Timothy Dexter, “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones, Or, Plain Truths in a Homespun Dress”, 1802. 
4.
Reader’s Digest Association., “Coals To Newcastle”, in The Reader’s Digest Book of Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, 1975, 501. 
5.
Randy Nelson F, “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones”, in The Almanac of American Letters, 1981, 206-7. 
6.
“A Pickle For The Knowing Ones - Split Pickle - Folio 1/4”, www.LordTimothyDexter.Com
7.
Adam O’Fallon Price, “Regarding the Em Dash - The Millions”, The Millions
8.
Nora Maynard, “You Call That a Punctuation Mark?! The Interrobang Celebrates Its 50th Birthday”, The Millions, March–2012. 
*
Loyal readers will remember that The Millions published a profile of Penny Speckter,8 the wife of interrobang inventor Martin Speckter, some years back.