A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 14

The manuscript is delivered, ladies and gentlemen. Barring any drama when the W.W. Norton staff return from Labor Day weekend, another milestone in the production of Shady Characters has been reached. To the many people I’ve hounded in the past month about images, quotes or other details, please accept my apologies and my thanks. Also, thanks must go to you, the Shady Characters readership, for your patience. Sorry for the radio silence!

Ben Yagoda, English teacher at the University of Delaware and instigator of the recent “logical punctuation” brouhaha, seems to be making a career as a punctuational agent provocateur. Turning his attention to the “Weimar-level exclamation inflation” particular to online communication, his latest missive for the New York Times makes passing reference to the interrobang and concludes that “QECs”, or “question-exclamation combos” (?! and !?), are now making their presence felt in print. Have any Shady Characters readers come across these devolved interrobangs in print?

Jen Doll of the Atlantic Wire has documented the “Imagined Lives of Punctuation Marks”* in a series of hilarious biographical sketches. Though the octothorpe and @-symbol do not warrant individual treatment, Doll does grant their street gang to a brief bio:

The Symbol for an Obscenity. !@#$!@$#!@ will tell you off just as soon as to look at you, but he’s fun to have around at parties and when truckers are giving you the finger on the highway, as well as on the off-chance you get your pinky caught in a door. Never met a bar brawl he didn’t like. Borderline sociopath, this @!*%$?-er owns a chihuahua.

The octothorpe does get a mention over at c|net, where Eric Mack laments the apparent fashion for prefixing a spoken exclamation with the word “hashtag” — for instance, “hashtag are you kidding me?”. I have never encountered this in person (I’m fairly sure my eyes will start out of their sockets if I ever have that privilege), but Mack evidently has done and implores his readers to use “pound” instead. Commenter md611, however, hits upon the correct solution to the problem, suggesting that:

[W]e could start saying “octothorpe”. That would be much easier to say and gesture.

I couldn’t agree more.

While reading Doll’s piece I came across a link to an article in Smithsonian magazine discussing the “The Accidental History of the @ Symbol”. Am I the only one to feel a little déjà vu when reading the latter article? 

11 comments on “Miscellany № 14

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Jonathan,

      That’s quite possible. I wonder, though, how many Internet users would still claim a “hackish” background? Perhaps the prevalence of international users for whom English is a second language might also skew things.

  1. Comment posted by diane on

    It may be out of your range, but have you considered punctuation in media other than print?
    Reading your blog got me wondering about things like braille, and hand-signing, and of course Borges’ marvellous vocal punctuation ~ though I don’t expect the last would apply.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Diane,

      That’s an interesting idea. I’ll have to have a look into it! Thanks for the comment.

  2. Comment posted by Nick Sherman on

    One point that Jen Doll overlooked about the “Symbol for an Obscenity” is that there is a word for it: grawlix. It was formalized by Mort Walker (of Beetle Bailey fame) in his “Lexicon of Comicana”.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks for that. A little light searching reveals the alternative term “obscenicons” — a worthy competitor for “grawlix”, I think.

    2. Comment posted by Marae on

      I’ve also heard it called profanitype.

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Indeed! Lots of similar suggestions at this StackExchange question too: “maledicta”, “depletives” (a neologism formed from “deleted expletives” according to its creator), and “swear symbols”, among others.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Comment posted by plumpy on

    I definitely know people who say “hashtag”. But it’s a reference to twitter, so it makes sense to use the terminology of the site.

  4. Comment posted by Drew Mackie on

    Yeah, I’ve heard the spoken “hashtag,” a la Twitter, as Plumpy says. It’s usually used ironically, but it’s very Diablo Cody and very jarring.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Plumpy, Drew — thanks for the corroboration. I await my first spoken “hashtag” with slightly less trepidation.

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