(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘symbols

“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

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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

“We communicate through art with symbols that transcend the boundaries of time and culture”*…

 

consistent-doodles

 

While studying some of the oldest art in the world found in caves and engraved on animal bones or shells, paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has found evidence of a proto-writing system that perhaps developed in Africa and then spread throughout the world.

The research also reveals that modern humans were using two-thirds of these signs when they first settled in Europe, which creates another intriguing possibility. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,” von Petzinger writes in her recently published book, The First Signs: Unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest symbols (Simon and Schuster). In other words, when modern humans first started moving into Europe from Africa, they must have brought a mental dictionary of symbols with them…

A painstaking investigation of Europe’s cave art has revealed 32 shapes and lines that crop up again and again and could be the world’s oldest code– its ur-language: “Stone Age Cave Symbols May All Be Part of a Single Prehistoric Proto-Writing System.”

* Richard Clar

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As we honor ancestral accomplishment, we might send carefully-excavated birthday greetings to Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae; he was born on this date in 1821.  An archaeologist and historian, and the second director of the National Museum of Denmark, he played a key role in the foundation of scientific archaeology.

Worsaae was the first to excavate and use stratigraphy to prove C. J. Thomsen’s sequence of the Three-age system: Stone, Bronze, Iron.  He was a pioneer in the development of paleobotany through his excavation work in the peat bogs of Jutland. And he contributed to the discussion of the origins of human populations around the world.  He proposed a route by which prehistoric people spread from Africa, through Asia, across the Bering Strait to the Americas, and from South America to Australia and the South Sea islands.  (Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition a century later [see here and here] proved the latter voyage to be possible.)  He suggested that Europe was populated later, with Scandinavia one of the last areas to be reached by humankind.

220px-Jens_Jacob_Asmussen_Worsaae_from_Familj-Journalen1885 source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 14, 2019 at 12:01 am

“Life swarms with innocent monsters”*…

 

MS H.8, Fol. 191 verso, St. Martha taming the tarasque. St. Martha preaching (margin), and initial O, “Hours of Henry VIII”MS H.8, "Hours of Henry VIII,” book of hours, France, Tours, ca. 1500

“The Taming the Tarasque,” from Hours of Henry VIII, France, Tours, ca. 1500

 

From dragons and unicorns to mandrakes and griffins, monsters and medieval times are inseparable in the popular imagination. But medieval depictions of monsters—the subject of a fascinating new exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan [which includes the image above]—weren’t designed simply to scare their viewers: They had many purposes, and provoked many reactions. They terrified, but they also taught. They enforced prejudices and social hierarchies, but they also inspired unlikely moments of empathy. They were medieval European propaganda, science, art, theology, and ethics all at once…

Finding the meaning in monsters: “The Symbols of Prejudice Hidden in Medieval Art.”

* Charles Baudelaire

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As we decode dragons, we might recall that it was on this date in 1542, with Pope Paul III’s papal bull Licet ab initio, that the Roman Inquisition formally began.  In the tradition of the medieval inquisitions, and “inspired” by the Spanish Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition gave six cardinals six cardinals the power to arrest and imprison anyone suspected of heresy, to confiscate their property, and to put them to death.

While not so much in the prudish spirit of Savonarola’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,”  the Roman Inquisition– which lasted in the 18th century– was ruthless in rooting out what it considered dangerous deviations from orthodoxy.  Copernicus, Galileo, Giordano Bruno, and Cesare Cremonini were all persecuted.  While only Bruno was executed, the others were effectively (or actually) banished, and in the cases of Copernicus and Galileo, their works were placed on  the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books).

inquisition source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs”*…

 

When brands get highjacked…

At far-right rallies across the U.S., an English tennis champion named Fred Perry hovers, invisible to the men unwittingly representing him. For the last two years, members of the Proud Boys cult of masculinity have worn Perry-branded striped-collar polo shirts with a Wimbledon-inspired laurel insignia as they shout at anti-fascist protesters and take rocks to the head. In blog posts and tweets dating back to 2014, their patriarch Gavin McInnes has instructed them that this — a Fred Perry cotton pique tennis shirt, always in black and yellow — is the proper armor for battling multiculturalism.

The Proud Boys at most have a few hundred active members, but they are a fixture at fascist “free speech” events like this month’s anti-Muslim marches, where they mingle with white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. McInnes is eager to point out that the Proud Boys accept people of color, Muslims, and Jewish people — so long as those members also “accept that the West is the best” and reject non-Western immigrants to America (McInnes is Canadian). But McInnes insists his followers are not themselves white supremacists, a clarification he has to make partially because Fred Perry polos have a history of popping up at racist skinhead punk shows and rallies across Europe and the Americas. The shirts have been a fixture in some form or another, in all their two-dozen-plus colorways, in both fascist and anti-fascist politics for fifty years, here in the States but especially in England, where both the brand and the skinhead subculture that co-opted it are from…

The whole sordid story at “How Fred Perry polos came to symbolize hate.”

* “Every miserable fool who has nothing at all of which he can be proud, adopts as a last resource pride in the nation to which he belongs; he is ready and happy to defend all its faults and follies tooth and nail, thus reimbursing himself for his own inferiority.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

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As we cull our wardrobes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1787 that Edward Gibbon completed last lines of his monumental (and instructively cautionary) History of the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire (nearly 25 years in the writing) between 11 o’clock & midnight in Lausanne.  He called it the “hour of my final deliverance.”

(In 1897, precisely 110 years later, Thomas Hardy visited the same spot and wrote his “Lausanne.”)

Edward Gibbon, portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 27, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member”*…

 

Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Our Motto, 1883

For all of their esoteric ways, America’s early secrets societies were remarkable branding machines. They had their own slogans, their own fashions, and their own symbols and colors. They even had their own manufacturing industry that produced and sold all of these items for mass consumption.

“The secrets function less for the concealing of information than as a bonding mechanism for members,” write the authors of As Above, So Below Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850-1930, a new book about the golden age of secret societies in America. These groups functioned not unlike street fashion or indie music—in which secret societies have contemporary corollaries—by offering experiences cloaked in hierarchy and mystery, designed to bond members together and transform their lives…

More at “The Bizarre Branding Of America’s Many, Many Secret Societies.”

* Groucho Marx

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As we chant our oaths, we might pause to celebrate National Multiple Personality Day, celebrated on this date each year.  While NMPD is an occasion to raise awareness of Multiple Personality Disorder, now more commonly known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, it is also an opportunity for the exploration of one’s own– not always consistent– personality traits.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 5, 2016 at 1:01 am

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