Emoji, part 2: what went before

As we saw in part 1, emoji did not arise in a vacuum. In designing his suite of icons, Shigetaka Kurita selected subjects that would be both recognisable and useful in the context of NTT DOCOMO’s new mobile internet service. Smiling faces (😊) and broken hearts (💔) conveyed emotion; trains (🚆) and planes (✈️) called up ticket booking services; videogame controllers (🎮) denoted mobile games; and so on. But the way in which emoji were and are presented — embedded among our letters and words while simultaneously being distinct from them — has always been as important as their content. In this respect, emoji owe as much to ancient scrolls, medieval books and typewriters as they do to pagers and mobile phones.


It feels redundant to say so, especially on a blog about punctuation, but the letters both of our alphabet and of others have never travelled alone. There have always been a select few non-alphabetic characters along for the ride. Some are functional, such as the marks of punctuation that form part of our written language; others are decorative; and still more live somewhere between the two extremes. In ancient Greece, for example, elaborate coronides marked the ends of books and poems.1 In Rome, K-shaped capitula, or “little heads”, signalled the start of each new section of a work and would later evolve into the pilcrow (¶), or paragraph mark. And both Greek and Roman scribes were partial to using hedera, or ivy leaves (❦), to break up lengthy passages.2

P.Lit.Lond. 134: Hyperides, In Philippidem
A bird-shaped coronis marks the end of a section of text in P.Lit.Lond. 134: Hyperides, In Philippidem. (Image taken from Classical texts from papyri in the British Museum; including the newly discovered poems of Herodas (1891), page 43.)

Later, as the paged codex supplanted the scroll, writers added yet more auxiliary marks such as asterisks (*), crosses (✠) and daggers (†)3,4 with which they organised footnotes and other asides. Some symbols were so important that it was the job of specialist scribes called “rubricators” to add them in contrasting red or blue ink after the fact.5 Readers, too, could not resist embellishing the page with their own marks, many of which took the form of little inky hands, or manicules (☞), that danced alongside the text to point out noteworthy passages.

Typographic hedera in Konrad Peutinger's Romanae Vetvstatis Fragmenta In Avgvsta Vindelicorvm Et Eivs Dioecesi
Typographic hedera in
Konrad Peutinger’s Romanae Vetvstatis Fragmenta In Avgvsta Vindelicorvm Et Eivs Dioecesi, printed in 1505 by Erhard Ratdolt. Words are separated by wedge-shaped interpuncts that mimic ancient Roman inscriptions. (CC-BY-SA 3.0 image © Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel. Romanae Vetvstatis Fragmenta In Avgvsta Vindelicorvm Et Eivs Dioecesi [Conradus Peutinger].)

Some of these marks crossed over to the printed page, although the difficulties of printing in multiple colours meant that rubricators were still called in to add them by hand.5 The pilcrow (¶) was one such mark, inked into blank spaces left by the printer at the head of each paragraph. But when the growing tide of printed books started to outpace the abilities of rubricators to decorate them, the pilcrow fell by the wayside to leave behind the modern indented paragraph.6,7*

The pilcrow’s disappearance was symptomatic of a broader change in typographic sensibilities. Not only did mass production put rubricators out of business but, in the pursuit of readability, many printers favoured an aethetic style notable mostly for its lack of ornamentation. Gutenberg himself used only letters, abbreviations and a handful of punctuation marks for his pioneering 42-line Bible, for example,8 while the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, active a few decades later, cemented the trend with a series of sparsely-decorated pocket-sized books that would set the tone for centuries to come.9

There was more trouble in store in the late nineteenth century when the invention of the typewriter dealt another blow to typographic sophistication. Conceived primarily as a tool for business, the typewriter’s QWERTY keyboard bore only letters, numbers, a few marks of punctuation and a dollar sign. Even the digits “0” and “1” were omitted: why waste the keys when the letters “O” and “I” would do just as well in their place?10,11 First, printers had deemed it recherché to use too many ornamental characters; now the typewriter made it impossible to type them in the first place.12 The era of the typographic special character seemed to be over.


As it happened, the arid environment of the typewriter keyboard was more fertile than it seemed. There might be no pointing fingers or ivy leaves immediately to hand, but the letters, numbers and symbols that remained could be combined to make entirely new designs. And so almost as soon as the typewriter had arrived, secretaries, stenographers and writers created the new medium of typewriter art, in which mundane typewritten characters became the raw material for increasingly creative graphic artworks.13

Typewritten portrait of Dorothy Gish
A typewritten portrait of actress Dorothy Gish made by Kenneth Taylor, an office boy at the Los Angeles Times, around 1919. (Image from Photoplay magazine, January-June 1919.)

By the early 1980s the QWERTY keyboard had become the interface to a new world of computers and networking, and typewriter art was along for the ride. Graphical user interfaces were still rare (Apple’s Lisa went on sale in 1983; the Mac a year later14,15) and computer users were accustomed to word processors, spreadsheets and games presenting themselves using only the ninety-five printable characters of the ASCII character set.16 (There was, inevitably, an accompanying fad for “ASCII pr0n” — titillating images composed of nothing more than the symbols on the computer keyboard.17 Who could have predicted that the internet would become a hotbed of such iniquitous material?)

It was into this text-only world that emoji’s first true ancestor was born. Comprising only a colon, a hyphen and a closing parenthesis, the emoticon, or :-), was perfectly designed to pierce the disinterested blankness of a CRT monitor. Granted, so-called emoticons have been discovered in many pre-digital sources, such as seventeenth century poems:

Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, (smiling yet:)
Tear me to tatters, yet I’ll be
Patient in my necessity.18

and transcriptions of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches:

…there is no precedent for your being here yourselves, (applause and laughter ;) and I offer, in justification of myself and you, that I have found nothing in the Constitution against.19

but these are almost certainly typographic missteps rather than intentional smileys. The consensus is that emoticons proper arrived in 1982 in response to a joke gone wrong on an electronic bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon University. We open the scene with a puzzle posed by CMU computer scientist Neil Swartz:

16-Sep-82 12:09    Neil Swartz at CMU-750R      Pigeon type question
This question does not involve pigeons, but is similar:
There is a lit candle in an elevator mounted on a bracket attached to the middle of one wall (say, 2" from the wall).  A drop of mercury is on the floor.  The cable snaps and the elevator falls. What happens to the candle and the mercury?

There followed a complaint that a mercury spill was no laughing matter, whether real or not. With tongues firmly in cheeks, Swartz and others took it upon themselves to discuss how such misunderstandings might be avoided in future. In the course of the debate, a colleague of Swartz’s named Scott Fahlman posted the immortal words:

19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman             :-)
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:

:-)

Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.  For this, use

:-(

Enter the emoticon.

The genius of Fahlman’s suggestion lay in the fact that just about any image of a human face, however abstract, will provoke an emotional reaction on the part of the viewer. So elemental were Fahlman’s inventions that images just like them have been around for millennia: a 4,500-year-old carving found at Nîmes in France is claimed to be the world’s oldest smiley;20 a 1700 BCE urn discovered on the border between Turkey and Syria, daubed with a distinctive :), runs it a close second;21 and similar doodles appear everywhere from medieval manuscripts to comic books. Nor is the modern stereotype of a smiley face an especially new invention. Designed in 1963 by a graphic artist named Harvey Ball, the iconic yellow smiley (🙂 is the closest analogous emoji) has since been co-opted as a symbol for everything from Walmart ad campaigns to acid house record covers.22,23 Even Ingmar Bergman, the famously morose film director, got in on the smiley action. Of course, he chose a “frowny” instead, drawn in lipstick on a mirror in his 1948 film Port of Call: “☹”.24

A cheery face in the pages of a manuscript dated to the second half of the thirteenth century. (Conches-en-Ouche, Musée du verre, ms. 0007, f. 061.)
A cheery face in the pages of a manuscript dated to the second half of the thirteenth century. (CC BY-NC 3.0 image of Conches-en-Ouche, Musée du verre, ms. 0007, f. 061, courtesy of La Bibliothèque Virtuelle des Manuscrits Médiévaux.)

Unsurprisingly, then, Fahlman’s happy and unhappy faces struck a chord, spreading first to other universities and then out into the world at large. As they did so, they multplied. In a November 1982 message sent to a colleague at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, CMU’s James Morris expanded the lexicon:25

(:-) for messages dealing with bicycle helmets
@= for messages dealing with nuclear war
<:-) for dumb questions
oo for somebody's head-lights are on messages
o>-<|= for messages of interest to women
~= a candle, to annotate flaming messages

All very creative, and faithful to the spirit of Fahlman’s own typewriter art writ small. But one of Morris’s emoticons in particular anticipated a problem that still vexes emoji users today: when one group of people control a medium, it is easy to marginalise people outside that group. The o>-<|= emoticon, for “messages of interest to women” was as blithely exclusionary then as the preponderance of male emoji has been until very recently.


Emoticons got their first major upgrade in 1986 in the form of kaomoji, or “face characters”. In that year, a Japanese message board user named Yasushi Wakabayashi began signing his posts with his online alias, “Wakan,” follwed by a creative assemblage of characters forming a face: (^ _ ^). Like Fahlman, Yasushi maintains a modest web page describing his part in the invention of kaomoji, where he explains that he wanted to make a smiley that could be immediately understood by all readers. In particular, he wanted his mark to be “right way up” so that readers would see it as a face without having to mentally rotate it through 90 degrees. Perhaps coincidentally, this means that both emoticons and kaomoji are aligned perpendicular to their native scripts: traditional emoticons lie at right angles to texts written in the Latin alphabet, while kaomoji spring from Japanese characters that are more often written from top to bottom.26

At first, only a few people understood what the collection of characters in Wakan’s signature were supposed to mean and today, as kaomoji grow ever more complex, they can still be difficult to decipher. The archetypal “shruggie” ( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ), for example, is relatively straightforward, as is the gloriously unhinged “table flip” ( (ノಠ益ಠ)ノ彡┻━┻ ), but others are not so easily parsed — consider ༼∗ღ۝ღ∗༽ (one of many kaomoji meaning “hunger”) or (#´∞`∫)∫ (“slow clap”), for example.27 And yet, after a slow start, suddenly Yasushi’s kaomoji were everywhere in Japan, taking their place alongside Scott Fahlman’s smileys as the new emotional currency of the internet.

At least, that is, until 1999, when emoji crashed the party.

If it was not immediately apparent that NTT DOCOMO’s little icons were destined for great things, their graduation in 2007 to Google’s Gmail and then, a year later, to Apple’s iPhone made it clear that something important was afoot.28,29 Google searches for “emoji” crept upwards just as those for “emoticon” tailed off.30 A drumbeat of tech news articles told Western iPhone owners how to unlock the hitherto Japan-only icons on their keyboards.29 The fate of the emoticon had been sealed, and today the likes of :-), ;-P, :-(, and :-D have been almost completely replaced by “🙂”, “😜”, “🙁”, “😀” and more.

And yet emoji’s seemingly effortless rise was anything but. More on that next time.

1.
F Schironi, “Book-Ends and Book-Layout in Papyri With Hexametric Poetry”, in, 2010. 
2.
Robert Bringhurst, “Hedera”, in The Elements of Typographic Style : Version 3.2, 2008, 311-. 
3.
M B Parkes, “The Technology of Printing and the Stabilization of the Symbols”, in, 1993, 50-64. 
4.
R A Sayce, “Compositorial Practices and the Localization of Printed Books, 1530–1800”, 1966. 
5.
Geoffrey Glaister A, “Rubricator”, Glossary of the Book, 1960. 
6.
Andrew Haslam, “Articulating Meaning: Paragraphs”, in Book Design, 2006, 73-74. 
7.
Jan Tschichold and Robert Bringhurst, “Why the Beginnings of Paragraphs Must Be Indented”, in The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design, 1991, 105-9. 
8.
S Füssel, “Bringing the Technical Inventions Together”, in, 2005, 15-18. 
9.
“Aldus Manutius, Scholar-Printer (c.1445-1515)”, nls.Uk, May–2012. 
10.
C E Weller, “Home of First Typewriter”, in The Early History of the Typewriter, 1921, 20-21. 
11.
Christopher Latham Sholes, “Improvement in Type-Writing Machines. U.S. Patent 207,559.”, August–1878. 
12.
J L Bell, “Dash It All!”, Oz and Ends, March–2009. 
13.
Maria Popova, “A Visual History of Typewriter Art from 1893 to Today”, Brain Pickings, 2014. 
14.
Christoph Dernbach, “Apple Lisa”, Mac History, 2007. 
15.
Christoph Dernbach, “The History of the Apple Macintosh”, Mac History, 2011. 
16.
Vint Cerf, “RFC 20: ASCII Format for Network Interchange”, ed. Network Working Group, October–1969. 
17.
K Mey, Art and Obscenity, 2006. 
18.
Levi Stahl, “The First Emoticon?”, Ivebeenreadinglately, 2014. 
19.
Jennifer 8. Lee, “Is That an Emoticon in 1862?”, New York Times
20.
Danny Kringiel, “Millionen für Ein Lächeln”, Spiegel Online, 2011. 
21.
Zuhal Uzundere Kocalar, “Ancient Pot Discovery in Turkey Contests Smiley Origin”, Andalou Agency, 2017. 
22.
Jack Neff, “Walmart Brings Back the Smiley Face in Ads and in Store”, Ad Age, 2016. 
23.
Christian Bernard-Cedervall and Antonin Pruvot, “How Did the Smiley Face Became an Icon of Rave Culture?”, Trax, 2016. 
24.
Ingmar Bergman, “Port of Call”, 1948. 
25.
Scott Fahlman, “‘Joke’ Conversation Thread in Which the :-) Was Invented”, Scott E. Fahlman
26.
若林泰志, “顔文字の起源 ({\^{}}_{\^{}})”
27.
“10,000+ Japanese Emoticons, Kaomoji, Text Faces & Dongers”, JapaneseEmoticons.Me
28.
Lauren Schwartzberg, “The Oral History Of The Poop Emoji (Or, How Google Brought Poop To America)”, Fast Company, 2014. 
29.
Arnold Kim, “IPhone 2.2 Includes Hidden Japanese Emoji Icons”, Mac Rumors, 2008. 
30.
“Emoticon, Kaomoji, Emoji”, Google Trends
*
You can read more about the pilcrow here at Shady Characters
I’ve also written previously in more detail about Fahlman’s invention. 

Emoji, part 1: in the beginning

Sex! Conflict! International standards bodies! The brief history of emoji is far more interesting than it has any right to be, and over the next few months I’ll be taking a look at where the world’s newest language* came from, how it works and where it’s going.


It started with a heart.

In the mid-1990s, Japan found itself in the grip of a pager boom. Sales of “pocket bells”, or poke beru,1 ran at over a million per year, with the country’s largest mobile network, NTT DoCoMo, taking the lion’s share.2 Elsewhere in the world, pagers were the preserve of businesses and hospitals where they called trauma surgeons to the emergency room or managers to the telephone. In Japan, however, pocket bells were increasingly sought after by teenagers: by 1996, almost half of all female high school students owned one, and peak pager hours had shifted from during the working day to the late evening, when the airwaves buzzed with teenagers’ illicit messages.3

The first pagers were simple devices, designed only to receive numeric messages. The idea was that a sender would call a recipient’s pager at its own dedicated telephone number and then tap in their desired message as another string of numbers. This in turn would appear on the pager’s LCD display. Often, the message was as simple as the sender’s telephone number, but in the USA, where pagers had originated, younger users created a loosely-codified dialect comprising numeric codes, in-jokes, and more. “6000*843” can be just about read as “good bye”, for example; “99” meant “nighty night”; “831” (eight letters, three words, one meaning) stood for “I love you”; and so on.4

Across the Pacific, Japanese high schoolers had their own pager-cipher in which numbers could be pronounced either in Japanese or English to form sound-alike phrases. “724106” translated to “What are you doing?”, for example, while “114106” meant “I love you”.5,6 Still, though, there was demand for a more sophisticated pager experience. As such, when one of DoCoMo’s smaller rivals launched a 1995 model that could translate pairs of digits directly into Japanese characters, demand was so high that the company had to temporarily stop accepting new customers.3

DoCoMo had to respond. A year later, the larger company added a heart symbol to the repertoire of some of its pager models, and their younger customers went wild for it. Accessed by dialling “88” or “89” when leaving a message on a recipient’s pager, the heart became a fixture in high schoolers’ messages — but those same pager addicts were left bereft when, a few short years later, the “❤” abruptly disappeared from the newest pagers. Some claim that DoCoMo ditched the symbol in order to attract more serious-minded business customers; others say that the heart took up valuable memory that was better used to support Japan’s expansive kanji script and the Latin alphabet. Subscribers did not care. They deserted DoCoMo in droves.7,8


In the event, DoCoMo’s unwonted heart surgery was the catalyst for something much larger. Elsewhere in the company, and aware that DoCoMo needed a new killer feature to replace the erstwhile “❤”, an engineer named Shigetaka Kurita was in the midst of developing the first mobile internet service for the operator’s cellphones. Kurita was disappointed by the drab, text-only applications available in the USA and elsewhere and dreamed of somehow elevating DoCoMo’s nascent “i-mode” internet service above these distinctly lo-fi offerings.8 But how? He looked to his environment for inspiration.

More so than in some other countries, Japanese culture and public life are suffused with visual symbolism. Comic books, or manga, are read avidly and universally, and many of them make use of common visual tropes that express concepts or states of being. An oversized drop of sweat on a character’s face represents anxiety or confusion; a lightbulb above their head is a moment of enlightenment. As the first host country in the modern Olympic era to use a non-alphabetic script, the Tokyo games of 1964 pioneered the use of symbols (🚴︎, 🚻︎, ⛵︎) rather than text to help foreign visitors find their way.10 And that same non-alphabetic script itself provided inspiration: in kanji, the ideographic script that Japan inherited from China, Kurita saw how powerful it was to be able to express complex ideas like “love” in a single character.11

Drawing on all these influences and more, Shigetaka Kurita designed a font containing one hundred and seventy-six monochromatic but lively icons — symbols such as smiley faces, thunderous clouds, cartoonish bombs and gibbous moons — and embedded it into DoCoMo’s new i-mode internet system. Emoji was born.8,12

NTT DoCoMo's original emoji
The original 176 emoji that have been added to The Museum of Modern Art’s Collection. (© NTT DOCOMO, Inc.)

Eyecatching though they were, Kurita’s creations were also a pragmatic addition to i-mode’s online services. On-screen menus used emoji to highlight paid services or train tickets; weather applications employed suns, clouds, umbrellas, snowmen and lightning bolts to provide comprehensive weather reports in a few lines of text; and 250-character limits on emails could be mitigated by judicious use of an emoji or two.14

Each symbol measured just twelve pixels by twelve — a scant one hundred and forty-four dots to represent a hospital, an incoming fax, or a movie camera — and some icons came out of Kurita’s digital wash cycle either shrunken or simply inscrutable. As such, when Kurita sent his finished designs to DoCoMo’s hardware partners for inclusion on their mobile phones, the response was tepid: Sharp, Panasonic, Fujitsu and others were more concerned with getting i-mode right than they were in polishing Kurita’s icons of cocktail glasses and snowmen. When emoji went out into the wider world as part of the launch of the i-mode platform, each of its symbols retained the same quirky, pixelated design in which Kurita had first drawn it.11

By contrast, DoCoMo’s competitors understood the promise of emoji right from the start and, moreover, saw that Kurita’s symbols could benefit from a nip here and a tuck there. Responding to the 1999 launch of the Fujitsu F501i, DoCoMo’s first i-mode smartphone and the first phone anywhere to support emoji,15 rival networks KDDI AU and J-Phone each duplicated Kurita’s uncopyrightable 12 × 12 icons before giving them fresh coats of paint and adding a few new symbols of their own.11 The rest is history: after a wildly popular debut, DoCoMo’s i-mode service finds itself today to be the AOL of Japanese mobile internet providers, active only in its home market and largely the preserve of the over-50s. Emoji, on the other hand, were a bona fide hit. The affair of the heart was forgiven.


As a postscript, the pagers that sparked the emoji boom have themselves been memorialised in emoji form. The “📟” icon has its own unique number on each major emoji platform: Apple, Facebook and Mozilla all display telephone numbers starting with Hollywood’s favourite fictional phone number prefix: “555-3215”, “555-1212” and “555-5555” respectively; Google’s pager reads “88888”, mimicking an LCD display with all of its segments turned on; and Samsung’s displays “SUNMOON”.16 Twitter’s pager emoji has a more substantive message: “40404” was and is the SMS number via which many Twitter users interact with the service.17,18


1.
Nicholas D. Kristof, “Japan’s Favorite Import From America: English”, The New York Times, 1995. 
2.
Tamiko Lippit, “Japan Teens Flip for Private Pagers”, International Herald Tribune, April–1995. 
3.
Mizuko Ito, Misa Matsuda, and Daisuke Okabe, “Youth Culture and the Shaping of Japanese Mobile Media: Personalization and the Keitai Internet As Multimedia”, in Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, 2006, 41-60. 
4.
Joe Mozingo, “Teens Create Language of Pager-Speak”, Los Angeles Times, November–1997. 
5.
“Goroawase: Japanese Numbers Wordplay”, Tofugu, 2011. 
6.
Adam Pasion, “Nippon’s Digital Numerology: The Pocket Bell”, Japan Daily, 2015. 
7.
Colin M. Ford, “Emoji: A Lovely History – Making Faces (and Other Emoji) Part 1”, Medium, 2016. 
8.
Justin McCurry, “The Inventor of Emoji on His Famous Creations – and His All-Time Favorite”, The Guardian, October–2017. 
9.
“Tokyo Telemessage Seeks Protection from Creditors”, Japan Times, May–1995. 
10.
Shigetaka Kurita, Mamiko Nakano, and Mitsuyo Inaba Lee, “Why and How I Created Emoji”, Ignition
11.
Jeff Blagdon, “How Emoji Conquered the World”, The Verge, 2013. 
12.
Mayumi Negishi, “Meet Shigetaka Kurita, the Father of Emoji”, Wall Street Journal, March–2014. 
13.
“Emoji”, Oxford Dictionaries
14.
“生みの親が語る「ケータイ絵文字」14年の軌跡と新たな一歩”, Nikkei Trendy, 2012. 
15.
Taro Matsumura, “F501i, the First Smartphone in Japan 1999”, Mobile Native, 2009. 
16.
Jeremy Burge, “Pager Emoji”, Emojipedia
17.
Dom Sagolla, “How Twitter Was Born”, 140 Characters, 2009. 
18.
“About Supported Mobile Carriers”, Twitter Help Center
*
NARRATOR: But is emoji really a language? Stay tuned. 
Tokyo Telemessage, the rival whose wildly successful katakana pagers had prompted DoCoMo to add the “❤” in the first place, kept the symbol as part of their pagers’ repertoire even as DoCoMo abandoned it. Ironic, then, that Tokyo Telemessage went bust in the same year that DoCoMo’s emoji-capable Fujitsu F501i arrived to save its 🥓.9 
The word is Kurita’s own, marrying e for “picture” and moji for “character”.13 

The interrobang on 99% Invisible

Long-time readers will remember that 99% Invisible, the wide-ranging podcast hosted by Roman Mars and produced in beautiful, downtown Oakland, California, featured an episode on the octothorpe back in December 2014. It’s a great listen: 99PI producer Avery Trufelman managed to track down Doug Kerr and Lorne As­plund, two of the engineers at Bell Labs who were instrumental in placing the ‘#’ on the then-new telephone keypad and later christening it as the “octothorpe”, to get the story behind the mark’s rebirth in the computer age.

Well, I’m happy to report that 99PI has just released a new episode on another familiar shady character: the interrobang! I first spoke to 99PI producer Joe Rosenberg about Martin K. Speckter’s (in)famous mark of punctuation back in 2012, so it has been a slow and winding road for this particular instalment, but it is finally here and it was worth the wait. Joe interviewed Martin’s widow, Penny, to learn more about the interrobang’s creation, and also talked to one Judge Frank Easterbrook, perhaps the most distinguished person ever to use an interrobang in anger. The full episode is available now, and it is great. Many thanks to Joe for sticking with the subject for all these years!


The featured image here shows sketches for the extra bold weight of Richard Isbell’s typeface “Americana”. Thanks to Fritz Klinke on Flickr for the use of his image.

Housekeeping № 3: moving to HTTPS

A very quick note this week: Shady Characters now runs exclusively over HTTPS. What does this mean? Well, rather like my recent post about how references work here on the blog, my hope is that very little will change — other than an extra ‘s’ in the site’s address.

Briefly, “HTTP” stands for “HyperText Transfer Protocol”. This is one of the basic technologies on which the world wide web runs:* it comprises a finite series of verbs that describe actions and a near-infinite collection of addresses (“Uniform Resource Locators”, or URLs) describing the things on which those verbs act.1 As an example, the verb GET retrieves a resource such as a web page; conversely, POST and PUT create and update resources such as comments. When you type an address that starts with http:// into your web browser, you know that your computer will use the HTTP protocol to access it.

HTTPS”, then, stands for “HTTP Secure”.2 That extra ‘s’ signals that all traffic between your web browser and the remote computer, or web server, which sends those HTTPS pages to you, is cryptographically scrambled so that no-one else can tell what information is exchanged between the two. This is precisely why banks and other financial institutions were among the first to embrace HTTPS — neither the state of your finances nor your instructions as to what to do with them are vulnerable to eavesdroppers.

For Shady Characters, moving to HTTPS means two things. First, all shadycharacters.co.uk web addresses now start with https:// rather than http://. Second, no entities involved in the communication of data between this website and your web browser can inspect the data that flows between them. In particular, the exact address that you happen to be viewing at any given time (such as https://www.shadycharacters.co.uk/series/the-pilcrow/ or https://shadycharacters.co.uk/books/the-book/) remains hidden, as do any messages that you might send to me via the Contact page.

It could be argued that HTTPS is overkill for a blog like Shady Characters. That said, the web is inexorably moving in the direction of enhanced security and privacy and HTTPS is a non-negotiable part of that movement. I want to provide visitors with the same assurances of security that you would expect of any other responsibly-run site. Separately, HTTPS is a prerequisite for using the newest version of the HTTP protocol and, although shadycharacters.co.uk doesn’t support it yet, it should eventually provide a nice bump in performance. Web pages will feel snappier as well as being more secure.

And that’s it! Feel free to carry on browsing as normal. You don’t even have to update your bookmarks, since the site itself will automatically redirect you from plain old http:// addresses to shiny new https:// ones. Let me know if you have any questions or comments, and thanks for reading!

1.
R Fielding and J Reschke, “Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP/1.1): Semantics and Content”, 2014. 
2.
R Fielding and J Reschke, “Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP/1.1): Message Syntax and Routing”, 2014. 
*
The other main web technology is HTML, the file format in which web pages are described. 
Comments are encrypted too, although of course once submitted they will become visible to all visitors. 

Miscellany № 85: you only have one *

Trail sign at Asterisk Pass.
Trail sign at Asterisk Pass. (Image courtesy of at Travis Kochel at Trail Type.)

We’ve visited Ampersand Mountain, with its eponymous creek and hotel, and we’ve heard tell of mythical San Seriffe Island; now, welcome to scenic Asterisk Pass in Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park! This excellent image was taken by Travis Kochel of Trail Type. Many thanks to him for permission to republish it.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much information out there on why Asterisk Pass was named as such. 1859 magazine suggest that the pass was given its name in the 1950s by a pair of brothers, Jim and Jerry Ramsey, and their friend Jack Watts,1 but why they chose that name isn’t recorded. Looking at pictures of the pass (such as the one below, taken by Kelle Cruz), however, I can’t help but wonder if the precariously balanced rock in the centre of the pass might just about be thought of as an asterisk* poking its starry head up above the letters surrounding it in a sentence. If you know more, please let us know in the comments below!

Asterisk Pass, by Kelle Cruz
Asterisk Pass. (CC BY-NC 2.0 image courtesy of Kelle Cruz.)

Whatever the story behind Asterisk Pass, if you should ever visit then take heed of the sign at the trailhead: this is a route for climbers, not for walkers. Remember, you only have one *.


A few links this week:

  • The Economist presents an entertaining read on the history of typesetting competitions.
  • The New York Times reports on a long-running legal case whose resolution hinged on an Oxford comma — or rather, on the lack thereof. Without going too far into the details, the case amounted to an argument over the meaning of the following sentence:

    The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of […] produce.

    The plaintiffs, a trio of truck drivers suing for more overtime pay, argued that the final clause should be interpreted as referring to “packing for shipment” and to “packing for distribution of […] produce” — that is, that “distribution of […] produce”, without the “packing” part, is not referred to as a discrete activity. Their employer, a dairy in Maine, asserted instead that the sentence referred to “packing for shipment” and, separately, to “distribution of […] produce” with no attendant packing. The absence of a clarifying comma makes all the difference.

    I won’t spoil the ending — have a read of the article itself to find out which interpretation won the day.

  • Also in the NYT is a illuminating article about Kazakhstan’s attempts to move from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. It has everything: an authoritarian leader; an ex-Soviet state striving to recover its own identity; and a reactionary church resisting the change. Oh, and apostrophes. Lots of apostrophes.
  • Lastly, a tweet by @ampersandconf (the Twitter account of Brighton’s annual Ampersand typography Conference) took me to the endlessly fascinating Archive of Styles maintained by the Alberto Tallone Editore press of Torino, Italy. It’s a photographic archive of everything from fonts to typesetting tools, and it is quite the rabbit-hole for typophiles and punctuation enthusiasts. Of special note for readers of Shady Characters are the archive’s collections of manicules, asterisks and crosses, and related miscellany.
1.
“Pioneers of Climbing at Smith Rock”, 1859 Oregon’s Magazine, 2012. 
*
Like this one.