A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 67: irony’s restoration

We first met the Right Reverend John Wilkins FRS, renaissance man of the Restoration, back in 2011. A founding member of the Royal Society, brother in law to Oliver Cromwell and mad scientist extraordinaire, Wilkins was one of the seventeenth century’s most ardent devotees of what are now called conlangs, or constructed languages, and he expended a considerable amount of time and effort on his magnum opus on the subject, An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language.1 His book was published to acclaim in scholarly circles though it very nearly never made it to print at all, as Wilkins himself explained in his introduction:

I have been the longer about it [the writing], partly because it required some considerable time to reduce the Collections I had by me to this purpose, into a tolerable order; and partly because when this work was done in Writing, and the Impression of it well nigh finished, it hapned (amongst many better things) to be burnt in the late dreadfull Fire; by which, all that was Printed (excepting only two Copies) and a great parts of the unprinted Original was destroyed: The repairing of which, hath taken up the greatest part of my time ever since.

The “late dreadfull Fire” was, of course, the Great Fire of London that in 1666 had destroyed some 13,000 homes in the City of London, Wilkins’ own vicarage among them.23 Having gathered his wits and his notes in the wake of the fire, Essay was finally published two years later.

His readers, by and large, found it to have been worth the wait.

The first and largest part of Wilkins’ ponderous tome was a taxonomy of, well, of everything, a kind of Dewey Decimal System for classifying “all things and notions that fall under discourse”, as Wilkins put it. Following this were the “real character” and “philosophical language” of the title — an alphabet of written symbols and a vocabulary of spoken sounds, respectively, with which readers could communicate the “things and notions” that they succeeded in categorising according to the taxonomy itself.4 The sum total of all this was a finished artificial language: rules for locating things and ideas within a taxonomical framework; a written script to set those concepts down on paper; and a spoken language to give them voice. Wilkins finally united Essay’s three components in a concrete example on the four hundred and twenty-first page of his book, in the form of the Lord’s prayer. Here it is:

The Lord's prayer, as translated by John Wilkins into his "philosophical language"
The Lord’s prayer, as translated by John Wilkins into his “philosophical language”. (An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, page 421. Image courtesy of Google Books.)

If you’ve read the Shady Characters book, however, or my first post about irony marks, you’ll already know that there was more to Essay than an elaborate constructed language. Tacked onto the tail end of Wilkins’ description of his “real character” was a clutch of punctuation marks with no less than an irony mark among them, the oldest one I’ve yet found, and one that has echoed down the centuries until today. Until now, I’d only ever known about Wilkins’ mark in an abstract way, via the words or allusions of other writers, but a recent tweet by Coffee & Donatus inspired me to look again at this earliest of irony mark. And with Coffee & Donatus’s help, now, happily, I can bring you Wilkins’ irony mark in the words of the man himself.

Let’s dive right in. The following image is a detail of page 393 from Essay on which Wilkins lists all of the marks he felt were necessary to punctuate texts written using his invented script. In addition to the humdrum comma, colon and period (not shown here), he branched out with a double-decker hyphen, parentheses, “explication” brackets used to elucidate texts, a question mark, an exclamation, or “wonder” mark, and, finally, an inverted exclamation mark serving as an irony mark:

John Wilkins' "other Notes to distinguish the various manners of Pronuntiation"
John Wilkins’ “other Notes to distinguish the various manners of Pronunciation”. (An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, page 393. Image courtesy of Coffee & Donatus.)

Wilkins wrote of his irony mark:

Irony is for the distinction of the meaning and intention of any words, when they are understood by way of Sarcasm or scoff, or in a contrary sense to that which they naturally signifie: And though there be not (for ought I know) any note designed for this in any of the Instituted Languages, yet that is from their deficiency and imperfection: For if the chief force of Ironies do consist in Pronunciation, it will plainly follow, that there ought to be some mark for direction, when are to be so pronounced.

Well put. The next time someone asks me to define irony, I’ll tell them that it is any use of words when they are understood by way of sarcasm or scoff, or in a contrary sense to that which they naturally signify. Here are Wilkins’ usage guidelines in situ on page 356, along with his descriptions of the other marks:

Wilkins' description of the punctuation marks to be used with his "real characters"
Wilkins’ description of the punctuation marks to be used with his “real characters”. (An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, page 356. Image courtesy of Coffee & Donatus.)

Unfortunately, despite the scholarly approval that greeted Essay on its publication, Wilkins’ masterwork followed the philosophical language movement in general on an inexorable downward slope. A century after its publication the fashion for constructing languages had largely waned, and Wilkins’ irony mark had been similarly forgotten. And yet, it was not lost. As we saw last year on Shady Characters, a 1792 book entitled A clear and practical system of punctuation by one Joseph Robertson5 recapitulated the case for an irony mark in exactly the same form, even if Robertson did not credit Wilkins for the invention. Then, scarcely more than a decade ago, Josh Greenman of Slate proposed again that ‘¡’ should be used to punctuate ironic statements.6 Wilkins and his book may be long gone, but his irony mark has usefully outlived them both.

Many thanks to Coffee & Donatus for the images in this post. If you enjoyed the images here, take a look back at Miscellany № 64: let’s gnomonise, which features more from Coffee & Donatus.

Wilkins, John. An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language. Printed for S. Gellibrand [etc.], 1668.


Wright Henderson, P. The Life and Times of John Wilkins. Edinburgh, London: W. Blackwood and Sons, 1910.


Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Great Fire of London”.


Lewis, R. “The Publication of John Wilkins’s Essay (1668): Some Contextual Considerations”. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 56, no. 2 (2002): 133-146.


Robertson, J. A Clear and Practical System of Punctuation : Abridged from Robertson’s Essay on Punctuation : For the Use of Schools. Boston: I. Thomas and E.T. Andrews, 1792.




12 comments on “Miscellany № 67: irony’s restoration

  1. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    The trouble with an irony mark, written or spoken, is that the whole point of irony is saying something other than what one means, so the mark would undermine the writer’s intentions.

    1. Comment posted by Brian on

      The trouble with the lack of an irony remark is that the “ironically challenged” can easily miss the inversion of intent, and take the author to mean what they said. Flamewars on groups, mailing lists, and social media have resulted when the intent was unclear.

      Ironic, isn’t it?

      [Wikipedia has an interesting article on Irony punctuation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irony_punctuation
      and Shady Characters (the book) is referenced as the source for Wilkins punctuation and essay.]

    2. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      I go back and forth on whether an irony mark is strictly necessary, but it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t be at least useful in some circumstances, especially in online discussions. Surely ‘¡’ is a more typographically elegant solution than the winking smiley?

      [The tail is now wagging the dog!]

      Thanks both for the comments!

  2. Comment posted by Kalem on

    I think I’ll use that mark all the time¡

  3. Comment posted by Ben Denckla on

    I’m confused by the word “finallor” in the post. Is it a typo, or my ignorance? Also in you citation of Greenman’s Slate article, the title ends with a normal exclamation mark followed by a grave accent (Punctuation!`) instead of an inverted exclamation point (Punctuation¡).

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Ben — thanks for catching that! “Finallor” is very definitely an error. As for the grave accent in the reference, I’ve fixed it in my Mendeley library and it should be updated at some point in the near future.

  4. Comment posted by Randolph Watkins on

    Thanks, Keith. In our verbal communications, we use voice inflection, facial effects and movement to lead our listener toward our meaning. As with so many social conventions, it is done almost without thought; it’s just how we speak clearly. I see the irony mark as a useful “new” upgrade to the written word to accomplish the same!

    Not to stray too far from the path, could you tell us how the letter “s” evolved (out of what we now see as an “f”)? Wasn’t it still used as late as the 19th century? Is it as simple as a taller, elongated letter that got shortened? Did the printing type change follow the handwritten change, or vice versa? (I should think it was the former.) Every once in a while, I see something well-known as though for the first time; then, as with no scales on my eyes, wonder why.

  5. Comment posted by Zeissmann on

    The inverted exclamation mark is of course also used in Spanish at the beginning of an exclamation sentence, ¡like this! Spanish could accommodate the irony mark by simply inverting that order to indicate irony, !like this¡ This has also the benefit that irony could easily be overlooked by a Spanish reader not paying enough attention, underlying irony’s subtlety.

    I propose to push this logic further – why not use the analogous Spanish character “¿” to indicate, say a rhetorical question¿ That’s a type of question that also seems like it should not be explicitly indicated, but who knows, maybe someone might find it useful¿

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      That’s an interesting idea! Rhetorical question marks have been done before, of course, in the form of the percontation mark, but it is usually rendered as a mirrored question mark rather than a rotated one. I have to say I prefer your version, and it’s much more likely to exist in the fonts in use today.

  6. Comment posted by Jon of Connecticut on

    I really love page 356 of Wilkins book. If we used puntcuation the way he proposes, inflection would be a lot easier. The marks are almost like musical notation.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Jon — the tension between elocutionists, who used punctuation to record the way we speak, and grammarians, who used it to define and enforce meaning, seems never to have been resolved. Wilkins seems to fall exactly between the two camps!

Leave a comment

Required fields are marked *. Your email address will not be published. If you prefer to contact me privately, please see the Contact page.

Leave a blank line for a new paragraph. You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>. Learn how your com­ment data is pro­cessed.