A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 89: 2020, year of the asterisk

The asterisk is old. Really old. Granted, it is not 5,000 years old, as Robert Bringhurst claims in the otherwise impeccable Elements of Typographic Style1 (Bringhurst confuses it with a star-like cuneiform mark that represents “deity” or “heaven”2), but it has more than two millennia under its belt nonetheless. I go into greater detail in the Shady Characters book, but the abridged version of the asterisk’s origin story goes something like this.


In the third century BCE, at Alexandria in Egypt, a librarian named Zenodotus was was struggling to edit the works of Homer into something approaching their original form. I say a librarian, but really Zenodotus was the librarian, the first in a long line to be employed at Alexandria by the Ptolemaic pharaohs.3 Many spurious additions, deletions and alterations had been made to the Odyssey and Iliad since the time of their composition, but Zenodotus lacked the tools to deal with them. As such, he started drawing a short dash (—) in the margin beside each line he considered to be superfluous, and, in doing so, inaugurated the field of literary criticism.4 Named the obelos, or “roasting spit”, in the seventh century Isidore of Seville captured the essence of Zenodotus’s mark when he wrote that “like an arrow, it slays the superfluous and pierces the false”.5

The asterisk, in turn, was created by one of Zenodotus’s successors. In the second century BCE, Aristarchus of Samothrace introduced an array of new critical symbols: the diple (>) called out noteworthy features in the text; the diple periestigmene (⸖) marked lines where Aristarchus disagreed with Zenodotus’s edits; and, finally, the asteriskos (※), or “little star”, denoted duplicate lines.6,7 Occasionally, Aristarchus paired an asterisk and obelus to indicate lines that belonged elsewhere in the poem.8

Thus the asterisk was born. And right from the beginning, it came with a warning: a text with an asterisk attached to it is not the whole story.


Having survived the intervening millennia with its visual form largely intact, by the medieval period the asterisk had moved into a new role as an “anchor” for readers’ notes: where a reader wanted to link a note scribbled in the margin to a particular passage in the text, a pair of asterisks would do the trick. Later, in printed books, authors used the asterisk to call out their own asides.9

By the twentieth century, the asterisk had become the de facto leader of the footnote clan. In 1953, a lexicographer named Eric Partridge explained that “the following are often used”: ‘*’, ‘†’, ‘**’, ‘‡’ or ‘††’, ‘***’ or ‘’ or ‘⁂’, and finally ‘†††’.10 Things have calmed down a little since Partridge’s time, but ‘*’, ‘†’, and ‘‡’ are still relatively common and even ‘§’, ‘||’ and ‘¶’ appear on occasion. Should a writer’s penchant for footnotes extend past five or six per page, lettered or numbered notes may be a better option and, indeed, the frequency of typographic footnote markers does seem to have waned over the past few decades.


Yet even as the asterisk is used less often as a footnote marker, its implied meaning — that there is more here than meets the eye — is as strong as ever. For American newspapers, merely to use the word “asterisk” is to tarnish its subject by association; for American sports writers, doubly so.

It all goes back to 1961, and a baseball establishment unwilling to see one of its all-time greats toppled from his pedestal. That year, Roger Maris of the New York Yankees had beaten George Herman “Babe” Ruth’s record of 60 home runs in a single season — but Maris’s record-breaking season had been eight games longer than Ruth’s record-setting 1927 season. Baseball commissioner Ford Frick announced that:

Any player who has hit more than 60 home runs during his club’s first 154 games would be recognized as having established a new record. However, if the player does not hit more than 60 until after this club has played 154 games, there would have to be some distinctive mark on the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.

Reporter Dick Young of the New York Daily News is said to have suggested that “Maybe you should use an asterisk on the new record. Everybody does that when there’s a difference of opinion.” An asterisk: a little star to diminish Maris’s brilliance on the diamond. Young’s asterisk was never actually employed, but for many years baseball almanacs carried both Maris’s and Ruth’s records side by side.11

Since Maris’s time, the asterisk has become the go-to metaphor for sports writers seeking to hedge some apparently remarkable achievement or another. In the early 2000s, Barry Bonds, one of baseball’s all-time greats, was awarded a plethora of asterisks in the wake of a doping scandal (“Tarnished Records Deserve an Asterisk”;12 “An Asterisk Is Very Real, Even When It’s Not”13). Lance Armstrong, another era-defining athlete, was pelted with asterisks after his own doping revelations (“Armstrong, best of his time, now with an asterisk”;14 “Armstrong: an era of asterisks*”15). The sporting asterisk travels, too: Mo Farah, one of Britain’s most celebrated athletes, has faced questions about his relationship with a disgraced sports doctor (“Sir Mo Farah’s link to a notorious doper leaves an asterisk next to his name”16).

Less often, the asterisk makes itself felt in the news proper. The Boston Globe reported George W. Bush’s contentious victory in the 2000 US presidential election with the headline “Bush Wins Election*”, accompanying it with a subtitle that read “*Pending Gore Challenges, Possible Supreme Court Ruling”.17 More recently, the controversial appointments of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court have both attracted asterisks (“Hirono: Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS seat has ‘big asterisk’”;18 “Welcome, Justice Barrett. Now here’s your asterisk”19). And, needless to say, the president who made those two appointments found himself labelled with an asterisk of his own on the occasion of his impeachment in 2019 (“Now Trump’s legacy bears an asterisk of shame”20). Who’s to say he won’t attract a few more before the 20th of January next year?


But that was then, and this is now. In the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic that continues to rage across the globe, the asterisk has been promoted to the top shelf of the sub-editor’s toolbox and, as a result, headlines on both the back pages and the front are suffering from a rash of little stars. It seemed remiss to let this go without remark, so I present to you a lightly annotated and extremely partial survey of 2020’s asterisk-bearing headlines. Enjoy, and please add your own examples in the comments!

Sports news in the USA

Other news in the USA

Sports news outside the USA

Other news outside the USA

Pre-2020 bonus asterisks


As the little stars continue to roll in, please do take care of yourself. Remember: in 2020, you only have one asterisk.

1.
Robert Bringhurst, “Asterisk”, in The Elements of Typographic Style : Version 3.2, 2008, 303-. 
2.
Samuel Noah Kramer, “The Origin and Development of the Cuneiform System of Writing”, in, 1963, 302-4. 
3.
William Smith, “Zenodotus”, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology., 1849. 
4.
Rudolf. Pfeiffer, “Zenodotus and His Contemporaries”, in, 1968, 105-22. 
5.
Isidore and Stephen Barney A, “Punctuated Clauses (De Posituris)”, in, 2006. 
6.
Rudolf. Pfeiffer, “Aristarchus: The Art of Interpretation”, in, 1968, 210-33. 
7.
“Asterisk”, OED Online, August–2012. 
8.
Kathleen McNamee, “Sigla”, in Sigla and Select Marginalia in Greek Literary Papyri, 1992, 9-. 
9.
M B Parkes, “The Technology of Printing and the Stabilization of the Symbols”, in, 1993, 50-64. 
10.
E Partridge, “Oddments”, in You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies, 1953, 226-. 
11.
Allen Barra, “Roger Maris’s Misunderstood Quest to Break the Home Run Record”, The Atlantic, July–2011. 
12.
Michael Wilbon, “Tarnished Records Deserve an Asterisk”, Washington Post, December–2004. 
13.
Allen Barra, “An Asterisk Is Very Real, Even When It’s Not”, New York Times, May–2007. 
14.
George Vecsey, “Armstrong, Best of His Time, Now With an Asterisk”, New York Times, August–2012. 
15.
Rob Arnold, “Armstrong: An Era of Asterisks*”, Ride Media, 2012. 
16.
Martin Samuel, “Mo Farah’s Link to a Notorious Doper Leaves an Asterisk Next to His Name”, Daily Mail Online, October–2019. 
17.
Michael Kranish and Susan Milligan, “Bush Wins Election*”, Boston Globe, November–2000. 
18.
Victoria Guida, “Hirono: Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS Seat Has ’big asterisk’”, Politico, October–2018. 
19.
George Seeley, “Welcome, Justice Barrett. Now here’s Your Asterisk”, Boston Globe, October–2020. 
20.
Eugene Robinson, “Now Trump’s Legacy Bears an Asterisk of Shame”, Washington Post, December–2019. 

12 comments on “Miscellany № 89: 2020, year of the asterisk

  1. Comment posted by Mark on

    Mantle? I suspect this post will need to be flagged with an asterisk! ;-)

  2. Comment posted by Rowan Tommins on

    I strongly suspect the pun in the “asterisk an obelisk” headline has less to do with the obelus, and more to do with Goscinny & Uderzo’s famous cartoons about the indomitable Gauls Asterix and Obelix. It’s possible that they in turn were inspired by the typographical terms, of course, layering yet another meaning into the character’s names.

    1. Comment posted by nicolas on

      The characters are definitely named after the characters! Oops, let me rephrase. The fictional Gauls are definitely named after the typographical signs! “Obélisque” (or “obèle”) is the French name for the dagger, i.e. †.

    2. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Rowan, Nicolas — thanks for the comments! I did consider that the headline might refer to Asterix and Obelix, but I thought I’d give the sub-editor the benefit of the doubt. And yup, as Nicolas says, the eponymous Gauls are definitely named after the marks.

    3. Comment posted by Pieter Smagge on

      So Asterix & Obelix are actually foottones in Roman history!

  3. Comment posted by Paul Howard on

    Houston Astro’s
    should be
    Houston Astros.

  4. Comment posted by Emilie Rigaud on

    Thank you very much for this article, I never noticed that English-speaking people use the word “asterisk” so much with this meaning! I don’t think we do this in French, it would be interesting to check if other languages make such an extensive use of “asterisk”.

  5. Comment posted by Jan Cox on

    Let us not forget the ascii-code of the asterisk. Might the asterisk be the answer to it all?

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