A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 41: a cornucopia for Christmas

Time for one last grab-bag of punctuation goodies before Christmas and New Year. First comes a story courtesy of the American TV quiz show Jeopardy (yes, I’m as surprised as you are). The basic idea behind Jeopardy, for the uninitiated (as I was, until my wife made me watch Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketches), is that contestants are given the answer to a question and must tell the host, Alex Trebek, the corresponding question.

Earlier this month, a contestant asked for an answer from the catch-all “Pop Quiz” category. This is what she received:


The question to this answer, incidentally, is “Who is Bobby Bonds?”, though eagle-eyed readers will also have noticed the unusual replacement of the word “STAR” with an asterisk. Why would the Jeopardy producers do this? The reason lies in Bonds Jr’s record-breaking 2007 season: on the strength of what was otherwise a middling year, Bonds broke the thirty-year-old career home run record to finish the year with a staggering 762 career home runs.2

But by replacing “STAR” with an asterisk, Jeopardy was very likely not celebrating Bonds’ stellar 2007 season. The problem with Bonds’ incredible record — and the reason that he is now haunted by the asterisk — was the alleged steroid use that helped him perform this surpassing feat of athleticism. In 2008 he was convicted for obstructing justice during an investigation into doping within high-level professional sports, and the nagging asterisk began to be associated with his name wherever it was mentioned.3 In the end, even the ball with which he made his record-breaking home run was (literally) branded with an accusing asterisk: clothing designer Mark Ecko bought the ball and had a ‘*’ lasered into its surface before donating it to the Baseball Hall of Fame.4

Jeopardy, then, was poking fun at Bonds rather than celebrating his career. There’s lots more on Bonds, George W. Bush, and other notables who have been dogged by an unhelpful asterisk in the Shady Characters book, but for now, let’s bask in a rare public appearance of this most accusatory of punctuation marks. (Rare, that is, except for the asterism you see below!)

In other news, Erik Kwakkel, medieval book historian at the University of Leiden, recently posted an excellent a picture of some rather surprisingly manicules at his Tumblr blog. Erik’s blog is a veritable treasure trove of medieval curios, and punctuation-philes will find much to enjoy.

Next; semicolons. You’ll have to watch all the way to the end of the this entertaining but entirely NSFW video to find out what I’m talking about. (This video contains some strong language.)

And lastly, Stan Carey tweets with this photograph of the Tironian et () in the wild. Perhaps it’s time for a revival?

In closing, that’s all from me for 2013. Thank you all for reading over the course of the past year, and thank you even more for buying the book now that it’s in the shops. If you give it as a gift, I hope it’s well received; if you receive it, I hope you enjoy reading it.

Have a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, and see you in 2014!



Baseball-Reference.com. “Barry Bonds Statistics and History”.


Slater, Matt. “From Balco to Bonds, Baseball’s Asterisk Era”. BBC, April 14, 2011.




5 comments on “Miscellany № 41: a cornucopia for Christmas

  1. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    Looks to me like the video should have been about colons rather than semicolons.

    Tironian et needs no revival in Ireland; it is normal to use it rather than & when writing in Irish.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John — ah, but did you watch until the end? It’s a parody of incorrect semicolon usage.

      As for the Tironian et, you’re absolutely right. But what about other lanugages? German in particular would seem to be a good fit.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Comment posted by C M Fletcher on

    Please post a warning before future videos if, like this one, they contain language unsuitable for grandmothers. I am willing to forgo the content. Even if I am the only one to object, I would appreciate your consideration.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Sorry about that! I did mention that the video was “NSFW” (Not Safe For Work), but I appreciate that it would be easy to miss the warning. My fault! I’ve updated the styling of such tags to make them more obvious, and I’ve added a comment to the effect that the video contains strong language.

      Thanks for the comment, and sorry again for any distress caused!

    2. Comment posted by C M Fletcher on

      Thank you.

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