(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘punctuation

“Perhaps the window is not a sun but an asterisk, interrupting the grammar of the sky”*…

Ceiling paper, by Steubenville Wallpaper Company, c. 1905. Cooper Hewitt

With luck, this is the final logistical note to those readers who subscribe by email: Google is discontinuing the Feedburner email service that (Roughly) Daily has used since its inception; so email will now be going via Mailchimp. That should be relatively seamless– no re-subscription required– but there may be a day or two of duplicate emails, as I’m not sure how quickly changes take effect at Feedburner. If so, my apologies. For those who don’t get (Roughly) Daily in their inboxes but would like to, the sign-up box is to the right… it’s quick, painless, and can, if you change your mind, be terminated with a click. And now, to today’s business…

Sumerian pictographic writing includes a sign for “star” that looks like a modern asterisk. These early writings from five thousand years ago are the first known depiction of an asterisk; however, it seems unlikely that these pictograms are the forerunner of the symbol we use today. Palaeographers know that Aristarchus of Samothrace (220–143 bc) used an asterisk symbol when editing Homer in the second century bc, because later scholars wrote about him doing so. Physical examples of Aristarchus’ asterisks have not survived, so we cannot know their physical shape, but as the word asteriskderives from the Greek asteriskos, meaning “little star,” an assumption has been made that they resembled a small star. Aristarchus used the symbols to mark places in Homer’s text that he was copying where he thought passages were from another source. By the third century Origen of Alexandria had adopted the asterisk when compiling the Hexapla—a Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures, the Septuagint. Origen used the asterisk to demarcate texts that he had added to the Septuagint from the original Hebrew. Both these early uses of the asterisk are as an editing tool, to notify the reader that the passage they are reading should be read with caution.

In the medieval period the asterisk continued to be employed in the copying of Bibles to flag up text from other sources. It also was increasingly used as a signe de renvoi (sign of return)—a graphic symbol which indicates where a correction or insertion should be made, with a corresponding mark in the margin with the correct text inserted. The asterisk is also found in medieval texts as a sign of omission. The use of the asterisk by scribes copying the Bible continued with the advent of the printing press; early printed Bibles, such as Robert Estienne’s 1532 Latin Bible, make use of an asterisk. Scribes did not always use the modern asterisk shape, some instead adopting a hooked cross with dots between each arm. However, when the asterisk was cut into type it was rendered as the five- or six-pointed star, and this is the form that has largely endured.

The asterisk (often used interchangeably with the dagger or obelus) persisted as an editing mark but was also frequently used as a caveat, showing that the passage highlighted by the asterisk was served by a footnote or side note. By the eighteenth century the asterisk was being deployed as a sort of censorship, covering up letters to represent a d**n vulgar word without actually b****y spelling it out. But, as W. Somerset Maugham points out, this has become somewhat outmoded: “We have long passed the Victorian era when asterisks were followed after a certain interval by a baby.”

A similar method, however, is still employed in comics, where it is known as grawlix, although the swear words are usually represented by a series of graphical glyphs, for example %@~#$!, rather than just asterisks. One of the problems with using asterisks to deaden the effect of a swear word is that it just draws attention to it (sometimes simply because one spends ages trying to work out which word the author is censoring).

In modern printed books [and in the titles of posts on (Roughly) Daily] the asterisk is most likely to show up as a method to mark footnotes. In advertising and on packaging it is generally a caveat—an advert might state “Free Beer*” but when you follow the asterisk you discover in the terms and conditions that to claim the free beer you must sign over your firstborn. Online and on instant messaging, asterisks have become increasingly useful and now provide a series of services; for example, to show emphasis, in the way italics are used on the printed page. This use probably started on certain online forums where to make a word show up as bold it needed to be surrounded by asterisks, like *this*. This convention then crept online where, rather than using bold to show emphasis, the asterisks serve the purpose instead.

It is also frequently used for corrections when you male* a spelling mistake.

* make

The history of the asterisk: “A Star is Born,” excerpted from Hyphens & Hashtags*: *The Stories Behind the Symbols on Our Keyboard by Claire Cock-Starkey, published by Bodleian Library Publishing. Copyright © 2021 by Claire Cock-Starkey. Distributed in North America by the University of Chicago Press. Via Lapham’s Quaterly.

* China Mieville

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As we annotate accurately, we might recall that it was on this date in 1631 that Mumtaz Mahal died during childbirth. Her husband, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan I, spent the next 17 years building her mausoleum, the Taj Mahal.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 17, 2021 at 1:00 am

“I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a very useful little chap.”*…

 

semicolon

 

Consider the semicolon. It’s beloved by some and assailed by others; in the annals of punctuation lore, no other symbol has sparked as much debate. A handful of years ago it was even the subject of a very funny parody song by The Lonely Island and Solange that poked fun at hashtag rap. (Though, in fairness to the semicolon, the song’s punchline is that it was using the semicolon incorrectly all along.) In her new book Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark, Cecelia Watson ventures into the long history and usage of semicolons, and the results are tremendously enlightening.

Semicolon is a slim book, but it deftly covers a lot of ground. Watson explores the origin of the semicolon, demonstrates how it’s gone in and out of linguistic favor over the centuries, and thoughtfully explored how a host of disparate writers — including Rebecca Solnit, Irvine Welsh, and Martin Luther King, Jr. — have memorably used it in their work. Watson also explores some of the surprisingly severe impacts the semicolon has had on society, such as the semicolon in a Massachusetts law that wreaked havoc on the state’s alcohol consumption, or the way the semicolon in a judicial sentence caused one man’s life to hang in the balance…

Tobias Carroll gets the lowdown from Cecelia Watson on how she learned to stop worrying and love the semicolon: “My Teachers Said We Weren’t Allowed To Use Them.”

* Abraham Lincoln

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As we pause to connect, we might spare a thought for Georges Joseph Christian Simenon; he died on this date in 1984.  A prolific author (who published nearly 500 novels and numerous short works), he is best known as the creator of the fictional detective Jules Maigret.  His work is featured in the collection La Pléiade (inspiration for the Library of America), and in 1966 he was awarded the Mystery Writers of America’shighest honor, the Grand Master Award.

Georges_Simenon_(1963)_without_hat_by_Erling_Mandelmann

SIMENON, Georges, 1963, Ecrivain (F) © ERLING MANDELMANN ©

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 4, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit … a mobility of illusory forms immobilised in space”…

 

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Three months ago, I was a normal person. Now all I think about 24-7 is the dinkus. Did you know that dinkuses is an anagram of unkissed? I did. For the uninitiated, the dinkus is a line of three asterisks (* * *) used as a section break in a text. It’s the flatlining of an asterism (⁂), which in literature is a pyramid of three asterisks and in astronomy is a cluster of stars.

The dinkus has none of the asterism’s linguistic association with the cosmos, but that’s why I love it. Due to its proximity to the word dingus, which means, to define one ridiculous word with another, “doodad,” dinkus likely evolved from the Dutch and German ding, meaning “thing.” To the less continental ear, dinkus sounds slightly dirty, and I can confirm that it’s brought serious academics to giggles.

For me, a writer and reader, its crumbiness is its appeal. I need some crumbs to lure me down the page…

Daisy Alioto‘s “Ode to the Dinkus.”

* James Joyce, Ulysses

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As we separate our sections, we might recall that it was on this date in 1248 that The University of Oxford received its Royal Charter from King Henry III.   While it has no known date of foundation, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s second-oldest university in continuous operation (after the University of Bologna).

The university operates the world’s oldest university museum, as well as the largest university press in the world, and the largest academic library system in Britain.  Oxford has educated many notable alumni, including 29 Nobel laureates, 27 prime ministers of the United Kingdom, and many heads of state and government around the world.  Sixty-nine Nobel Prize winners, 4 Fields Medalists, and 6 Turing Award winners have studied, worked, or held visiting fellowships at Oxford.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Space: the final frontier”*…

 

This is a time of much division. Families and communities are splintered by polarizing narratives. Outrage surrounds geopolitical discourse—so much so that anxiety often becomes a sort of white noise, making it increasingly difficult to trigger intense, acute anger. The effect can be desensitizing, like driving 60 miles per hour and losing hold of the reality that a minor error could result in instant death.

One thing that apparently still has the power to infuriate people, though, is how many spaces should be used after a period at the end of an English sentence.

The war is alive again of late because a study that came out this month from Skidmore College. The study is, somehow, the first to look specifically at this question. It is titled: “Are Two Spaces Better Than One? The Effect of Spacing Following Periods and Commas During Reading.”…

Find out the truth at “The Scientific Case for Two Spaces After a Period.”

* the words opening each episode of Star Trek

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As your correspondent basks in confirmation, we might recall that it was in 1770 that Germany and France moved past 30 years of animosity, celebrating their new alliance with the marriage of Archduchess Marie “let them eat cake” Antionette and Dauphin Louis-Auguste de France (soon enough to become King Louis XVI), in a lavish ceremony at Versailles, in front of more than 5000 guests.

A torrential thunderstorm pre-empted the fireworks planned for that evening; but the celebration continued through May 30th, when fireworks on Place de la Concorde killed 132 people– a grim omen of a reign that would prove tragic.

Marie Antoinette in her wedding dress, which was adorned with white diamonds

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

“If commas are open to interpretation, hyphens are downright Delphic”*…

 

The tilde is 3,000 years old, but is there any grapheme that’s more ~of the times~? The little traveling worm, originally designed to convey approximation (and used in Spanish and Portuguese to denote certain sounds), expresses so much more: strangeness, emotional and physical distance — but perhaps most importantly, sarcasm…

The twisted mark’s twisted story in its entirety at “The Internet Tilde Perfectly Conveys Something We Don’t Have the Words to Explain.”

– Mary Norris (the New Yorker‘s “Comma Queen”)

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As we move our fingers to the upper left of our keyboards, we might send rib-tickling birthday greetings to Moses Harry Horwitz; he was born on this date in 1897.  Better known by his stage name, “Moe Howard,” he was the de facto leader of The Three Stooges, both on stage and off.

Moe, flanked by Curly and Larry, in The Three Stooge’s classic “Disorder in the Court

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 19, 2017 at 1:01 am

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