A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 61: verbal irony seeks meaningful relationship. No, really.

Well, hello there.

Kim Anderson's "Unpunctuated seeking", a book about irony's search for a worthy typographic partner.
Kim Anderson’s Unpunctuated seeking, a book about irony’s search for a worthy typographic partner. (Image courtesy of Kim Anderson.)

You all know the handsome fellow that adorns the cover of this book, don’t you? This is the ironieteken, the brainchild of type designer Bas Jacobs, and it is used to terminate an ironic statement.1 Specifically, it is intended to punctuate verbal irony, where a speaker or writer says one thing but means another. It is, to my mind, the most visually convincing irony mark to date — but for the purposes of today’s short post, it is merely one of the many suitors who have tried and failed to win irony’s hand in marriage.

After posting last year about the quasiquote (still one of my favourite finds!), a New Zealand reader named Kim Anderson got in touch to tell me about a typographic design project she was about to embark upon. And though the subject of her project has since morphed from the quasiquote to the irony mark, it is my pleasure to share it with you now that it is finished. As Kim describes it:

For centuries a quiet but persistent debate has raged over whether irony should be punctuated. Many have put forward their suggestions for an irony mark (all with varying degrees of seriousness), but so far none have lasted the test of time.

Fascinated by this topic, I styled the search for an irony mark into irony’s search for a punctuation soulmate — its perfect match. While many obstacles stand in irony’s way to find true punctuated love, it perseveres right into the digital age.

Kim took to heart the idea that irony has been seeking a typographic partner since, oh, the time of the Great Fire of London, and produced a book chronicling its quest to find the right irony mark through posting in a lonely hearts column. The ironieteken you see above is the cover star of the resultant book, titled Unpunctuated seeking and written, designed, printed and bound by Kim herself. For all that I scroll through the images of it at Kim’s online portfolio, I’m still captivated by that bright red of that debossed ironieteken. The world at large may have disdained their union, but I think irony and the ironieteken are made for each other.

I must thank Kim for keeping me up to date with her project — it looks fantastic, and, as someone who has just finished crudely stitching together a home-made photo album as a wedding anniversary gift for my wife, I am entirely in awe of the skill evident in Kim’s production of the finished article. If you’re interested in Kim’s work, follow her on Twitter or see more of her portfolio at Behance.

Apologies for the truncated post; the manuscript for The Book has just arrived back from W. W. Norton and I am rather giddily leafing through Brendan Curry’s edits in preparation for responding to them. Trust me when I tell you that it will be a much better book for his attentions!

Jacobs, Bas. “Irony Mark, and the Need for New Punctuation Marks”. Underware, 2007, Underware, 2007.


13 comments on “Miscellany № 61: verbal irony seeks meaningful relationship. No, really.

  1. Comment posted by Graham Moss on

    Nice one, and I shall add it to my handwriting!

    Did you visit any Aldus Manutius exhibitions yet? It’s the 500th anniversary of his death so there are a few about the place, Manchester, Venice, New York, even the BL in London I think. Why: because conventional wisdom says this is the guy who invented or first determined the use of the colon, though I’ve yet to find reference to the right book or pages pictured therefrom. I leave this in your capable hands!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Graham — thanks for the comment!

      I’ve been meaning to visit a Manutius exhibition for a while — a friend recommended the one currently showing at the Hunterian in Glasgow, though I’ll likely be in London sooner. On a related note, the NLS says that Aldus was first to invent the semi-colon, and that it first appeared in De Aetna.

    2. Comment posted by Graham Moss on

      Yes, a lot of references soandso says thisandthat, but trying to track down the originals that show it, and I come up blank! So, Aldus invents the semi-colon, but when and where?! Show me the print, show me the book!

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Graham — the NLS has an image here that depicts a semi-colon on signature A1 of Aldus’s edition of Pietro Bembo’s De Aetna.

  2. Comment posted by Bonnie on

    I never thought the world needed an irony mark until I saw this one.

  3. Comment posted by Jeremy on

    I’m in two minds whether I would like an irony mark. On the one hand, in the interests of clear communication, a symbol would be extremely useful. On the other hand, part of the fun of reading irony is not necessarily knowing that it is irony …

    Looking forward to the book The Book!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Jeremy — this is exactly the problem that the irony mark faces. The need for it seems to vary inversely with the length of the message, and by the time you get to proper prose documents detecting the irony is half the fun.

      There’ll be more info about The Book in due course. Thanks for the comment!

  4. Comment posted by Cuyler Brooks on

    I do all letters and zines in LibreOffice, mostly in Goudy Old Style but occasionally Papyrus. I don’t expect them to add the ironieteken to the Special Character list for those fonts, but where could I get it for the DTP at all? Back when I did everything in the DOS-based FancyFont, I could have done it for myself, as that system had a Font Editor.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Cuyler — thanks for the message! Underware used to make the ironieteken available for free in a series of fonts, though they seem to have disappeared from their website. Perhaps Bas Jacobs could help you out if you drop him a line!

  5. Comment posted by Michael Anthony on

    I rarely feel blushed with excitement over punctuation … the last battle with my client concerning the Oxford comma (note: I cannot understand NOT using the Oxford comma and find anyone who disagrees completely Neanderthal)

    The new mark for irony is fantastic! Now, I must study up on the use of irony … a very controversial subject in my office.

    1. Comment posted by Michael Anthony on

      Excellent … I will take a look … this is fun!

  6. Comment posted by Lindsay Olney on

    I too like the look of the irony mark. But I suspect that as soon as a mark is used to point out irony, it almost by definition kills the irony. So in terms of match-making you would be marrying irony off to the punctuational equivalent of Fred West. I know he wasn’t a wife-killer but you know…

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