Changes to email subscriptions

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Roman all over the place: a Shady Char­ac­ters field trip

Hadrian’s Wall is quite a thing. Its construction is linked to a visit to Britain, in 122 CE, of the Emperor Hadrian, although work may have been underway before then. Conventional wisdom says that Hadrian wanted to keep the restive Celts out of Roman Britain to the south; another interpretation is that the wall was a means to collect tolls and duties from whomever might have cause to pass through it, Celt or otherwise. Whatever the case, the finished wall was eighty miles long, running almost from coast to coast, and it became the abiding symbol of Roman rule in the island of Britain.1,2

Vindolanda is just a mile south of Hadrian’s Wall. It’s the site of a Roman auxiliary fort and an associated village, or vicus, both of which predated the wall but subsequently became part of its supporting infrastructure. The fort was rediscovered some time before 1702, which was the year that a doctor named Christopher Hunter3 described:

a square room, strongly vaulted above, and paved with large stones set in lime, and under this a lower room, whose roof was supported by rows of square pillars of about half a yard high: the upper room had […] two chimneys on each side of every corner or square [.]

All of which sounds exactly like the warm room, or tepidarium, of a Roman bathhouse, with a hypocaust below the floor and chimneys within the walls to convey hot air from the furnace.4

Despite the find, little happened in the way of excavations until the land on which the fort sat was acquired in 1814 by one Anthony Hedley, an Anglican priest and enthusiastic amateur antiquarian. Hedley’s purchase saved what remained of the fort from the stone-robbing and looting that blighted much of the rest of the wall, with Hedley himself rescuing a Roman gravestone from the attentions of an over-eager tenant farmer in 1818. Many more finds would follow and, since the 1930s, the site has been subject to near-continuous archaeological investigation.4

Today, Vindolanda is run by a charitable trust as combination of an open-air museum and an ongoing archaeological excavation.5 It’s a great place to visit if you’re in the vicinity — some of the nearby sites on Hadrian’s Wall itself have a more dramatic outlook, but the scale of the fort and vicus, along with a well-presented museum that houses nearly a century’s worth of archaeological finds, mean that Vindolanda more than holds its own.

On a recent visit, I couldn’t help but linger at a collection of Roman inscriptions — well, replica inscriptions, since the originals are in nearby Chesters Museum — originally discovered by Anthony Hedley himself. Together, they provide a fascinating snapshot of how stonemasons in Roman Britain approached writing and punctuation.

First up is the gravestone that Hedley found in 1818. It’s dated to between 43 to 410 CE, which is archaeology’s way of saying “we don’t know when it was made but we’re pretty sure it came from Roman-occupied Britain”,6 and it marks the death of one Cornelius Victor.

Reproduction of Roman gravestone at Vindolanda
Reproduction of Roman gravestone at Vindolanda. The text is recorded as inscription 1713 at Roman Inscriptions of Britain. (Picture by the author.)

The inscription reads:

D(is) M(anibus)
Corn(elius) Victor s(ingularis) c(onsularis)
mil(itavit) ann(os) XXVI civ(is)
Pann(onius) fil(ius) Saturni-
ni p(rimi) p(ilaris) vix(it) an(nos) LV d(ies) XI
coniux procuravi(t)

Or, translated and with its abbreviations expanded,

To the spirits of the departed; Cornelius Victor, singularis consularis, served for 26 years, a Pannonian tribesman, son of Saturninus, a senior centurion, and lived for 55 years, 11 days. His wife had this set up.”7

All the usual quirks are there: uppercase letters only; dots between words; abbreviations for familiar phrases; too-long words broken across lines. It’s a time capsule of Roman writing customs.

With the gravestone are three altarpieces that all display the same traits:

Reproduction of Roman altar at Vindolanda
Reproduction of Roman altar at Vindolanda. The text is recorded as inscription 1685 at Roman Inscriptions of Britain. (Picture by the author.)
Reproduction of Roman altar at Vindolanda
Reproduction of Roman altar at Vindolanda. The text is recorded as inscription 1686 at Roman Inscriptions of Britain. (Picture by the author.)
Reproduction of Roman altar at Vindolanda
Reproduction of Roman altar at Vindolanda. The text is recorded as inscription 1687 at Roman Inscriptions of Britain. (Picture by the author.)

Moreover, all three show a quirk of Roman numerals that I hadn’t previously thought much about. The inscription for the first, for example, reads as follows:

sacrum Pi-
tuanius Se-
cundus prae-
fectus coh(ortis) IIII

Or, translated,

Sacred to the Genius of the commandant’s house Pituanius Secundus, prefect of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls, (set this up).8

The thing I found interesting is that the number four is rendered not as “IV”, as I had expected, but rather in the “IIII” style found on some clocks.* “IIII” is said to be additive and “IV” subtractive, but very little (that I can find) has been written about when or why the Romans switched from one to the other. The only real convention seems to have been that the additive notation was preferred for inscriptions, especially official ones.9 The colosseum, for example, used “IIII” rather than “IV” for some of its gates.10 Beyond that, the choice seems to have come down to taste and/or context, even within the same document.

I’d love to know if any readers can shed some light on this!

David Breeze, “History of Hadrian’s Wall”
Jarrett Lobell A, “The Wall at the End of the Empire”, Archaeology Magazine, May–2017. 
Gordon Goodwin and F Horsman, “Hunter, Christopher (bap. 1675, D. 1757), Antiquary and Physician”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004. 
Robin Birley, “Roman Researches from Camden to Anthony Hedley, John Clayton and Eric Birley”, in Vindolanda : A Roman Frontier Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, 2009. 
“History of the Trust”, The Vindolanda Trust
“An Introduction To Roman Britain (AD 43–c.410)”
“RIB 1713. Funerary Inscription for Cornelius Victor”, Roman Inscriptions of Britain
“RIB 1685. Altar Dedicated to the Genius Praetori”, Roman Inscriptions of Britain
Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, “Numbers, Roman”, in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1996, 1053. 
Cycler48, “Colosseum”, Flickr, October–2012. 
It’s amazing the things you notice when writing a book about the pocket calculator

Miscellany № 90: 🌀🪐☆✻, or, the grawlix

This sentence:

I really #\*$@% want to visit a museum.

combines a truthful statement with what is known as a grawlix — a pile of non-alphanumeric characters intended to represent (and censor) a profanity.

I’ve been meaning to write about grawlixes for what is probably a few years now, but which, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus catastrophe, feels more like a few decades. The word (though not the typographical practice) was coined by the American newspaper cartoonist Mort Walker, whose bona fides derive from his creation, in 1950, of a comic strip called Beetle Bailey that he continued to produce until his death in 2018. (A 1954 spin-off, Hi and Lois, is carried on by his sons.)1 Walker introduced the grawlix and its relatives to the world at large in a 1975 book called Backstage at the Strips that, in turn, made reference to an earlier “presentation” concerning the grawlix:2,3

In a rather pedantic presentation I made to the members of the National Cartoonists Society called “Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes,” I wrote:

As the world begins to recognize that cartooning is an art form, I have become increasingly aware of the world’s lack of knowledge about our profession. They are exhibiting our work now in the Louvre, the Smithsonian, and the Metropolitan, and they are discussing cartoons in broad flowing terms such as “social significance,” “illuminated narrative,” and “primitive commentary,”* but not one of them knows the difference between such basic comicana as the “waftarom” and the “indotherm.”

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to track down the “presentation” Walker quotes from. As far as I can tell, he may have published a version of it in the January 1969 issue of The Cartoonist, the magazine of The National Cartoonists Society. There are archives out there which have a copy, but work on the new book has prevented me from investigating further.4,5

Walker later codified his lexicon of comicana in, well, The Lexicon of Comicana, published in 1980.6 Here, he goes into detail. “Briffits” are little clouds that show where a fast-moving object (such as a fist) started its arc; “hites”, “dites”, or “vites” are lines showing the direction (horizontal, diagonal or vertical) in which that object moved. A fragrant object emits a “waftarom”; a hot one, “indotherms”. Someone with little starbursts called “squeans” orbiting their head is tipsy; a tornado-like “spurl” means they’re plastered.7 “Grawlix” was just one of a troupe of similar neologisms invented by Walker to describe a wide array of cartooning conventions.

But here’s the thing. A grawlix is not a collection of typographic characters — at least not the way that Walker defined it. In Lexicon, he writes:

A variety of acceptable curse words are at the cartoonist’s disposal. He may throw in a new one from time to time, but the real meat of the epithet must always contain plenty of jarns, quimps, nittles, and grawlixes[.]

In Walker’s jargon, a “jarn” is a spiral or similar mark (for example, 🌀); a “plewd” is a planet- or moon-shaped mark (, 🪐); a “nittle” is a star or star-like mark (, , etc.); and, finally, the grawlix of legend is an illegible scrawl intended to suggest but not actually communicate a written word. All of these come together, says Walker, in “maledicta”, or curse words, which can be made up of some or all of these components.6

In other words, the thing we call a grawlix is not a grawlix; it is a maledictum. To make matters worse, the more “grawlixes” we create with our keyboards the farther we travel from Walker’s original definition. We can find halfway-decent jarns, plewds and nittles in Unicode’s depths, but without grabbing a pen or a painting app, we cannot, by definition, create a grawlix.

What should we call them instead? The late Gwillim Law, who excavated a host of maledicta for his compendious web page “Grawlixes Past and Present”,8 stuck with “grawlix”. Over at UPenn’s indispensible Language Log blog, they’ve settled on Ben Zimmer’s portmanteau of “obscenicon”. I’m partial to “maledictum”, but, let’s face it, that is a hopelessly pretentious term for a cartoon swear word.

What say you? Answers on a postcard, or, alternatively, in the comments. And please, if you can reproduce them, show us some of your favourite grawlixes / obscenicons / maledicta!

Ali Bahrampour, “Mort Walker, Whose ‘Beetle Bailey’ Was a Comic-Page Staple for Decades, Dies at 94”, Washington Post
“Review: Backstage at the Strips, Mort Walker”, April–2021. 
Mort Walker, Backstage at the Strips, 1975. 
Luis Gasca, “Bibliografía Mundial Del ‘Comic’”, April–1969. 
Mort Walker, “Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes”, 1969. 
Mort Walker, The Lexicon of Comicana, 1980. 
John Brownlee, “Quimps, Plewds, And Grawlixes: The Secret Language Of Comic Strips”, Fast Company, July–2013. 
Gwillim Law, “Grawlixes Past and Present”, statoids.Com, 2010. 
As someone who has only recently started reading Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, I would like to say that I, too, am bursting with lofty, borrowed thoughts on subjects such as the continuum of realism in comics. Do yourself a favour and order a copy today. 
There are too many relevant Language Log posts to list, but here, from oldest to newest, is a selection of the most apposite:

Announcing a new book: Empire of the Sum

It has been a long time coming, but I’m pleased to announce that I’m working on a new book. Empire of the Sum: The Rise and Reign of the Pocket Calculator* will be published by W. W. Norton in late 2022 or thereabouts, and Brendan Curry will take the editing reins once again.

Empire of the Sum is a bit of a departure from Shady Characters but perhaps not a million miles away from The Book, in that I’ll be using an object so common that it often fades into the background to look at the wider ~context~ in which it was born, lived, and (sort of) died. Here’s how I put it in the proposal for Empire, after much help and encouragement from Laurie Abkemeier:

The calculator — electronic or mechanical, pocketable or otherwise — has a strong claim to being one of the most pervasive technological innovations of the twentieth century. For a hundred years, calculators were fixtures of classrooms, offices, lecture theatres, laboratories, and even space flights. To an astronaut, a calculator was a ticket home. To an engineer, it was as natural a tool as a drawing board or an HB pencil. To a tradesman, it was as familiar as a screwdriver. For a student, it was a trinket to be decorated with stickers — or dreaded as a totem of math class. Even now, in the age of the smartphone, everyone has a calculator in a certain kitchen drawer, kept company by takeaway menus, Sellotape, and half-burned birthday candles.

Many similar technologies in the twilight of their lives boast communities of ardent supporters. Vinyl collectors, film photographers, classic car owners, ham radio enthusiasts: bump into one at a party and get ready to learn a lot about record players, medium format cameras, or bias-ply tires. But where are the Little Professor boosters, the TI-81 bores? There is a small, close-knit community of calculator collectors out there, but the reality is that the calculator doesn’t need them to survive. Even if it no longer lives in your backpack or briefcase, the calculator has ascended to a kind of silicon afterlife, living on as an app on your iPhone, your Galaxy, or your ThinkPad. The pocket calculator may have disappeared from daily view, but its soul is still very much with us.

Empire of the Sum will chart the long rise and sudden fall of the pocket calculator and its ancestors. Each chapter takes a calculator — the ancient abacus, the ingenious slide rule, the sleek Programma 101, the space-bound HP-35, and more — and weaves them together into a story spanning thousands of years. We’ll meet medieval Scottish lairds, Restoration spies, and Cold War astronauts. We’ll hear pebbles rustle on Mesopotamian sand and watch electrons flash across a vacuum. We’ll watch the development of the hydrogen bomb and the rise of the microchip, the first powered by calculators, the second powering them. And finally, we’ll see the calculator fall from grace as the home computer eats its lunch.

So there you have it! I hope that has piqued your interest, and please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions. I’m also interested to know if you have any stories or anecdotes about calculators of any kind. Slide rules, abacuses, adding machines, graphing calculators, you name it; if you have a story, please do drop me a line or leave a comment here.

With apologies to J. G. Ballard. 

Emoji: the future of text?

It started with a heart, so the story goes. Emoji’s founding myth tells that telecoms operator NTT DOCOMO, at the height of Japan’s pager boom of the 1990s, removed a popular ‘♥️’ icon from their pagers to make room for business-oriented symbols such as kanji and the Latin alphabet. Stung by a backlash from their customers, in 1999 NTT invented emoji as compensation, and the rest is history.

Only, not quite. It is true that in 1999, NTT used emoji to jazz up their nascent mobile internet service, but emoji had been created some years earlier by a rival mobile network. It was only in 2019, twenty years after emoji’s supposed birth at NTT, that the truth came out.

Does it matter, when considering the structure and transmission of text, that for two decades our understanding of emoji’s history was wrong? Safe to say that it does not, but it serves as a salutary reminder for those who care about such things that emoji are slippery customers. And now, having colonised SMS messages and social media, blogs and books, court filings and comic books, these uniquely challenging characters can no longer be ignored.

As with essentially all modern digital text encodings, emoji lie within the purview of the Unicode Consortium. Almost by accident, what was once a head-down, unhurried organisation now finds itself to be responsible for one of the most visible symbols of online discourse. And, unlike the scripts with which Unicode has traditionally concerned itself, emoji are positively alive with change. Almost from the very beginning – that being 2007, when Google and Unicode standardised Japan’s divergent emoji sets for use in Gmail – Unicode has been on the receiving end of countless requests for new emoji, or variations on existing symbols. (Of note has been a commendable and ongoing drive to improve emoji’s representation of gender, ethnicity and religious practices.) Thus “emoji season” was born, that time of the year when Unicode’s annual update has journalists and bloggers scouring code charts for new emoji.

And therein lies a problem: emoji updates are so frequent, and so comprehensive, that it is by no means certain that the reader of any given digital text possesses a device that can render it faithfully. The appearance of placeholder characters – ‘☒’, colloquially called “tofu” – is not uncommon, especially in the wake of emoji season as computing devices await software upgrades to bring them up to date. Smartphones, which rely on the generosity of their manufacturers for such updates, are worst off: a typical smartphone will fall off the upgrade wagon two or three years after it first goes on sale, so that there is a long tail of devices that are perpetually stranded in bygone emoji worlds.

If missing emoji are at least obvious to the reader, the problem of misleading emoji is not. Although Unicode defines code points for all emoji, the consortium does not specify a standard visual appearance for them. It suggests, yes, but it does not insist. As such, Google, Apple, Facebook and other emoji vendors have each crafted their own interpretations of Unicode’s sample symbols, but those interpretations do not always agree. As such, in choosing an emoji, the writer of a text may inadvertently select a quite different icon than the one that is ultimately displayed to their correspondent.

Consider the pistol emoji (🔫), which, at different times and on different platforms, has been displayed as a modern handgun, a flintlock pistol, and a sci-fi ray-gun. (Only now is a consensus emerging that a harmless water pistol is the most appropriate design.) Or that for many years, smartphones running Google’s Android operating system displayed the “yellow heart” emoji (💛) as a hairy pink heart — the result of a radical misinterpretation of Unicode’s halftone exemplar — that was at odds with every other vendor’s design.

These are isolated cases, to be sure, but it is perhaps more concerning that Samsung, undisputed champion of the smartphone market, once took emoji noncomformity to new height. Prior to its most recent operating system update, Samsung’s emoji keyboards sported purple owls, rather than the brown species native to other devices (🦉); savoury crackers rather than sweet cookies (🍪); Korean flags rather than Japanese (🎌); and many other idiosyncrasies.

Today, most vendors are gradually harmonising their respective emoji, while still preserving their individual styles. (Samsung, too, has toned down its more outlandish deviations from the norm.) But although the likelihood of misunderstandings is diminished, it is still impossible to be sure that reader and writer are on the same page: with emoji, the medium may yet betray the message.

Finally, and as absurd as it sounds, is the prospect of emoji censorship. From 2016 to 2019, for example, Samsung devices did not display the Latin cross (✝️) or the star and crescent (☪️). These omissions had mundane technical explanations, but it is not difficult to imagine more sinister motives for suppressing such culturally significant symbols. In fact, one need not look far to find a genuinely troubling case. Starting in 2017, Apple modified its iOS software at China’s behest so that devices sold on mainland China would not display the Taiwanese flag emoji (🇹🇼). At the time of writing, as protests against Chinese rule rock Hong Kong, ‘🇹🇼’ has disappeared from onscreen keyboards there, too.

In this there are echoes of Amazon’s notorious deletion of George Orwell’s 1984 from some users’ Kindles because of a copyright dispute. A missing emoji might seem like small fry by comparison, but it is every bit as Orwellian: is a text written in this time of crisis devoid of Taiwanese flags because the writer did not use that emoji, or because it had been withheld from them? The case of the missing ‘🇹🇼’ shows how emoji, often derided as a frivolous distraction from “real” writing, can be every bit as vital as our letters and words. We owe it to them to treat them with respect.