Emoji, part 2: what went before

As we saw in part 1, emoji did not arise in a vacuum. In designing his suite of icons, Shigetaka Kurita selected subjects that would be both recognisable and useful in the context of NTT DOCOMO’s new mobile internet service. Smiling faces (😊) and broken hearts (💔) conveyed emotion; trains (🚆) and planes (✈️) called up ticket booking services; videogame controllers (🎮) denoted mobile games; and so on. But the way in which emoji were and are presented — embedded among our letters and words while simultaneously being distinct from them — has always been as important as their content. In this respect, emoji owe as much to ancient scrolls, medieval books and typewriters as they do to pagers and mobile phones.

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Emoji, part 1: in the beginning

Sex! Conflict! International standards bodies! The brief history of emoji is far more interesting than it has any right to be, and over the next few months I’ll be taking a look at where the world’s newest language* came from, how it works and where it’s going.

It started with a heart.

In the mid-1990s, Japan found itself in the grip of a pager boom. Sales of “pocket bells”, or poke beru,1 ran at over a million per year, with the country’s largest mobile network, NTT DoCoMo, taking the lion’s share.2 Elsewhere in the world, pagers were the preserve of businesses and hospitals where they called trauma surgeons to the emergency room or managers to the telephone. In Japan, however, pocket bells were increasingly sought after by teenagers: by 1996, almost half of all female high school students owned one, and peak pager hours had shifted from during the working day to the late evening, when the airwaves buzzed with teenagers’ illicit messages.3

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NARRATOR: But is emoji really a language? Stay tuned. 

The interrobang on 99% Invisible

Long-time readers will remember that 99% Invisible, the wide-ranging podcast hosted by Roman Mars and produced in beautiful, downtown Oakland, California, featured an episode on the octothorpe back in December 2014. It’s a great listen: 99PI producer Avery Trufelman managed to track down Doug Kerr and Lorne As­plund, two of the engineers at Bell Labs who were instrumental in placing the ‘#’ on the then-new telephone keypad and later christening it as the “octothorpe”, to get the story behind the mark’s rebirth in the computer age.

Well, I’m happy to report that 99PI has just released a new episode on another familiar shady character: the interrobang! I first spoke to 99PI producer Joe Rosenberg about Martin K. Speckter’s (in)famous mark of punctuation back in 2012, so it has been a slow and winding road for this particular instalment, but it is finally here and it was worth the wait. Joe interviewed Martin’s widow, Penny, to learn more about the interrobang’s creation, and also talked to one Judge Frank Easterbrook, perhaps the most distinguished person ever to use an interrobang in anger. The full episode is available now, and it is great. Many thanks to Joe for sticking with the subject for all these years!

The featured image here shows sketches for the extra bold weight of Richard Isbell’s typeface “Americana”. Thanks to Fritz Klinke on Flickr for the use of his image.

Housekeeping № 3: moving to HTTPS

A very quick note this week: Shady Characters now runs exclusively over HTTPS. What does this mean? Well, rather like my recent post about how references work here on the blog, my hope is that very little will change — other than an extra ‘s’ in the site’s address.

Briefly, “HTTP” stands for “HyperText Transfer Protocol”. This is one of the basic technologies on which the world wide web runs:* it comprises a finite series of verbs that describe actions and a near-infinite collection of addresses (“Uniform Resource Locators”, or URLs) describing the things on which those verbs act.1 As an example, the verb GET retrieves a resource such as a web page; conversely, POST and PUT create and update resources such as comments. When you type an address that starts with http:// into your web browser, you know that your computer will use the HTTP protocol to access it.

HTTPS”, then, stands for “HTTP Secure”.2 That extra ‘s’ signals that all traffic between your web browser and the remote computer, or web server, which sends those HTTPS pages to you, is cryptographically scrambled so that no-one else can tell what information is exchanged between the two. This is precisely why banks and other financial institutions were among the first to embrace HTTPS — neither the state of your finances nor your instructions as to what to do with them are vulnerable to eavesdroppers.

For Shady Characters, moving to HTTPS means two things. First, all shadycharacters.co.uk web addresses now start with https:// rather than http://. Second, no entities involved in the communication of data between this website and your web browser can inspect the data that flows between them. In particular, the exact address that you happen to be viewing at any given time (such as https://www.shadycharacters.co.uk/series/the-pilcrow/ or https://shadycharacters.co.uk/books/the-book/) remains hidden, as do any messages that you might send to me via the Contact page.

It could be argued that HTTPS is overkill for a blog like Shady Characters. That said, the web is inexorably moving in the direction of enhanced security and privacy and HTTPS is a non-negotiable part of that movement. I want to provide visitors with the same assurances of security that you would expect of any other responsibly-run site. Separately, HTTPS is a prerequisite for using the newest version of the HTTP protocol and, although shadycharacters.co.uk doesn’t support it yet, it should eventually provide a nice bump in performance. Web pages will feel snappier as well as being more secure.

And that’s it! Feel free to carry on browsing as normal. You don’t even have to update your bookmarks, since the site itself will automatically redirect you from plain old http:// addresses to shiny new https:// ones. Let me know if you have any questions or comments, and thanks for reading!

R Fielding and J Reschke, “Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP/1.1): Semantics and Content”, 2014. 
R Fielding and J Reschke, “Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP/1.1): Message Syntax and Routing”, 2014. 
The other main web technology is HTML, the file format in which web pages are described. 
Comments are encrypted too, although of course once submitted they will become visible to all visitors. 

Miscellany № 85: you only have one *

Trail sign at Asterisk Pass.
Trail sign at Asterisk Pass. (Image courtesy of at Travis Kochel at Trail Type.)

We’ve visited Ampersand Mountain, with its eponymous creek and hotel, and we’ve heard tell of mythical San Seriffe Island; now, welcome to scenic Asterisk Pass in Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park! This excellent image was taken by Travis Kochel of Trail Type. Many thanks to him for permission to republish it.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much information out there on why Asterisk Pass was named as such. 1859 magazine suggest that the pass was given its name in the 1950s by a pair of brothers, Jim and Jerry Ramsey, and their friend Jack Watts,1 but why they chose that name isn’t recorded. Looking at pictures of the pass (such as the one below, taken by Kelle Cruz), however, I can’t help but wonder if the precariously balanced rock in the centre of the pass might just about be thought of as an asterisk* poking its starry head up above the letters surrounding it in a sentence. If you know more, please let us know in the comments below!

Asterisk Pass, by Kelle Cruz
Asterisk Pass. (CC BY-NC 2.0 image courtesy of Kelle Cruz.)

Whatever the story behind Asterisk Pass, if you should ever visit then take heed of the sign at the trailhead: this is a route for climbers, not for walkers. Remember, you only have one *.

A few links this week:

  • The Economist presents an entertaining read on the history of typesetting competitions.
  • The New York Times reports on a long-running legal case whose resolution hinged on an Oxford comma — or rather, on the lack thereof. Without going too far into the details, the case amounted to an argument over the meaning of the following sentence:

    The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of […] produce.

    The plaintiffs, a trio of truck drivers suing for more overtime pay, argued that the final clause should be interpreted as referring to “packing for shipment” and to “packing for distribution of […] produce” — that is, that “distribution of […] produce”, without the “packing” part, is not referred to as a discrete activity. Their employer, a dairy in Maine, asserted instead that the sentence referred to “packing for shipment” and, separately, to “distribution of […] produce” with no attendant packing. The absence of a clarifying comma makes all the difference.

    I won’t spoil the ending — have a read of the article itself to find out which interpretation won the day.

  • Also in the NYT is a illuminating article about Kazakhstan’s attempts to move from Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet. It has everything: an authoritarian leader; an ex-Soviet state striving to recover its own identity; and a reactionary church resisting the change. Oh, and apostrophes. Lots of apostrophes.
  • Lastly, a tweet by @ampersandconf (the Twitter account of Brighton’s annual Ampersand typography Conference) took me to the endlessly fascinating Archive of Styles maintained by the Alberto Tallone Editore press of Torino, Italy. It’s a photographic archive of everything from fonts to typesetting tools, and it is quite the rabbit-hole for typophiles and punctuation enthusiasts. Of special note for readers of Shady Characters are the archive’s collections of manicules, asterisks and crosses, and related miscellany.
“Pioneers of Climbing at Smith Rock”, 1859 Oregon’s Magazine, 2012. 
Like this one.