September 27, 2013

Words of the Month - Punctuation

        September 24 was National Punctuation Day (at least according to whomever it was who registered it.)  As someone with Opinions about punctuation, I thought I'd dedicate this month's words to the topic.  First, a brief history.  Our system of punctuation owes most of its roots to the ancient Greek dramatists, who made little marks on the scripts of their plays to help the actors know where to pause in speaking their lines.  The part of a sentence which each mark noted eventually gave its name to the mark itself.

comma -  literally "piece which is cut off", it meant a piece of a sentence in Greek and indicated the shortest pause while speaking (entered English in the 1520'2 as a Latin word, by 1590's accepted as English)

colon - entered English in the 1540's from Latin "part of a poem," from Greek "part of a verse," where it indicated a medium pause.  The Greek word meant literally "limb," from Proto-Indo-European "to bend."  It appears to be unrelated to the word for the large intestine.

period - The first meaning in English was "an extent of time," then it meant "the pause at the end of a sentence," and finally (c. 1600) the dot marking the end of a sentence.  In ancient Greece it indicated the longest pause for the actors.

        In the Middle Ages there wasn't a lot of punctuation, and what there was was not standardized.  Manuscripts were often written without even spaces between words, let alone spaces or marks between sentences or paragraphs.  However, sometimes marks such as strokes and dots of various sorts were used to indicate groupings of words, still to help with the reading aloud of text.

punctuation - from Medieval Latin "marking with points," from Latin punctus "a prick."  The meaning "system of inserting pause marks in written matter" dates from the 1660s.

pilcrow - This is the proper name for the paragraph sign: or ¶.  The word may derive either from French pelegraph, a corruption of paragraph, or it may derive from, of all things, pulled crow, on the theory that it looks like one (!?)  The form may derive from a C with a line down it, from Latin capitulum, meaning "chapter," and is really not a backwards P at all.  It was used in some medieval manuscripts to mark transition from one topic to another, but nowadays we don't see much of this sign, unless we're looking at a computer document with its "hidden characters" showing, where it marks a return.

        William Caxton, the first printer in England, used only the stroke, the colon, and the period, but not in the same ways we do.  For example, his period could indicate either a full stop or a comma-like pause.  It was the invention of printing with moveable type that standardized punctuation, however.  It also catalyzed the shift from punctuation designed to help with reading aloud, to punctuation designed to help with reading silently.  

exclamation mark - One theory as to the origin of the mark is the Latin exclamation of joy, io, written with the letters one above the other.  Exclamation mark became the standard word (or at least a standard word) in the mid seventeenth century, but there are a surprising number of terms for this particular punctuation point.  Among my favorites are note of admiration, bang, and shriekmark.  I also like shout pole, which was apparently coined by Andrew Hussie in his webcomic Homestuck.  (See this article by Megan Garber for more!)  And a final bit of trivia: although the exclamation mark was used in printing since the fifteenth century, it wasn't standard on typewriters until the 1970s.  Before that you had to type an apostrophe, backspace, and type a period below it.

eroteme - You may think you don't know this punctuation mark, but you do.  It's simply the word for question mark adopted by American grammarian Goold Brown in the first half of the nineteenth century.  It may be less straightforward, but you have to admit that it's more pleasing to say and a lot shorter to write.  Isn't it a lovely word to know?

        Let's close with some new punctuation marks that have been proposed (but will almost certainly not catch on.)

interrobang - Invented in the 1960s by ad exec Martin K. Speckter, this mashup of a note of admiration and an eroteme is, I'm sorry to say, essentially pointless.  The word is, of course, derived by blending interrogative point with bang, but other proposed names for the punctuation mark included exclarotive and exclamaquest.  At least Speckter chose the best option!  It enjoyed a brief vogue, even appearing on some typewriters (this before the plain exclamation point was standard) but in the end was merely a passing fad.

percontation point - With the rise of on-line communication there's been a lot of discussion of the need for punctuation to indicate irony and sarcasm.  But the English written language has been toying with this idea for quite a while.  The percontation mark, simply a backwards question mark, was invented in the 1580s to mark a rhetorical question, but it didn't make it past the seventeenth century.  In 1841 Belgian lithographer Marcellin Jobard used that same backwards question mark symbol as an irony mark.  In 1966 a Frenchman indicated the point d'ironie with a symbol like a psi: ψ.  In 2007 a Dutch type foundry
unveiled another design, the ironieteken, like a lightning-bolt-shaped exclamation point.  In 2010 an American company invented the SarcMark, which can be downloaded (for a fee, naturally) for use on electronic devices.  And does the use of emoticons such as ;) and :P count as punctuation?  It will be interesting to see whether we ever do end up with another punctuation mark.  And if we do, what will it be called?  Snark mark?

        Just remember, whatever punctuation you use, for pity's sake, please use it correctly!  Consider the difference between
Let's eat, Grandma! and
Let's eat grandma!
    Punctuation saves lives.

[Pictures: Tails magazine cover, image found here;
Commafail sign, image from The Snarky Student's Guide to Grammar;
Selection of irony marks, from here, here, and here;
Cartoon unattributed, image found here.]

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