October 1, 2013
One of the better looking books to land on my desk lately is Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. Its contents, I’m happy to report, live up to the promise of its stylish cover.
Shady Characters builds on the author’s blog of the same name, taking readers on a hugely entertaining journey down the backroads of typographical history. As well as the familiar family of dashes, commas and other stops, it puts us on intimate terms with the lesser-seen pilcrow (¶), at-symbol (@), octothorpe (#), interrobang (‽), and irony marks, among others.
It also documents in satisfying detail my new favourite mark, the manicule (☞), or pointing hand:
If a reader’s interest stretched to a few lines or a paragraph, a manicule’s fingers could be elongated to bracket the required text; in some extreme cases, inky, snake-like fingers crawl and intertwine across entire pages to indicate and subdivide relevant text in a horror-film parody of the hand’s physical form. Very occasionally, manicules were not hands at all; in one fourteenth-century Cicero [...] a five-limbed octopus curls about a paragraph, and in a seventeenth-century treatise on the medicinal properties of plants, tiny penises point out discussions of the male genitalia.
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October 18, 2012
As a child I used to draw things like animals and people using only the letters in their names. I would stretch and contort each word’s curves to evoke the shape of what it referred to. It’s a game I’m sure many have played. And I liked drawing faces that were also faces when you turned the page upside-down – like this matchbox set, but simpler.
So you can imagine the appeal ambigrams held. (Example above, or see Wikipedia for a basic introduction.) I think I first encountered these shapes, also known as inversions, in Douglas Hofstadter’s books. They involve an artfully contrived symmetry whereby a word can be rotated, reflected or otherwise shifted but remains readable.
I recently came across the beautiful ambigram below: a perfectly symmetrical mirror alphabet from puzzle-designing wizard Scott Kim.
It’s immediately recognisable as the modern Latin alphabet, but the ingenious warping and blending required to make it symmetrical gives it a striking, quite exotic appearance. Ambigrams are “so purely visual,” Kim has said: “You can explain them in words, but it’s like describing a dance.”
The symmetrical alphabet is available as a poster, and you can see more of the artist’s ambigrams, many of them animated, on his page of inversions. The image is copyright © Scott Kim, scottkim.com, and is used with permission.
February 14, 2012
In 1937, a hundred years after its founding, the Bauer Type Foundry issued Bauer’s Family Tree of Printing Types:
I know little about typeface design, still less its history, so I can’t comment on the accuracy. But I like the idea of a family tree of types, and it’s a fine presentation: the fonts are like colourful garden birds preening peaceably in the sun, each showing off its unique qualities.
For detail and supplementary text, see Steven Heller’s post at Print magazine, which brought the tree to my attention.
September 28, 2011
I’m overdue another batch of links, so here it is! These are language-related posts and stories and pictures that appealed to me lately. Most are recent; a few I dug up from the archives. Some of them you might already have read (especially if you follow me on Twitter), but I hope you’ll find something new and interesting.
A noisy alphabet.
Is towards heading toward disuse?
Chasing pigeons and language acquisition.
What’s the difference between but and though?
So what’s noo: Do you drop your yod?
How to speak hip in 1959.
English has a few new determinatives.
Are there linguistic differences between the sexes?
English is not a parade, and you are not the drum major.
On being persuaded about convince.
The etymythology of nerd.
Names for “@” around the world.
Blogs in indigenous and minority languages.
The colour of vowel sounds: a synaesthesia experiment.
How language contact changes language (PDF).
Three logicians walk into a bar.
The origins of music genre names.
There’s lots more like this in the archives.
August 19, 2011
It was a busy week at the sentence clinic; there was time for just one blog post, which featured a funny publishing anecdote and a curious law of fashion. Until I get round to another, here is some language-related reading and listening material for your enjoyment:
The virtues of the passive voice.
‘Ghetto grammar‘ is not the problem.
Railroad terminology and slang (with a great discussion at Language Hat).
Twanging with Lynne Murphy aka Lynneguist (audio).
Shakespeare insult kit.
+1’tastic: When a number becomes a word.
The hidden meaning of pronouns.
The lie/lay problem, or why “English morphology is a disgrace.”
Inscription at Persepolis.
Fifty concise writing tips (PDF).
Goldwynisms – the genuine, the phony, and the professionally created.
Swearing, euphemisms, and linguistic relativity.
Humorous units of measurement.
Connecting through a common third language.
Commonly confused words.
March 27, 2011
All hat and no cattle: a selection of Texan expressions.
The great language land grab.
International Dialects of English Archive.
How language eats brains, and why it matters to language evolution.
Typography in 8 bits.
On the asymmetry of language in the brain.
Is the Associated Press hoping to create a hyphen shortage?
What’s going on with suspended hyphens?
An overview of English in the 20th century.
Brian Dettmer’s book sculptures.
“We speak X”, where x = fish, human, tennis, methadone…
The secret life of the pilcrow (¶), parts one, two, and three.
Cartoon cussing in Country & Western.
Dictionary of Newfoundland English (via The Other Side of Sixty).
Spontaneous written narratives by a child with autism (PDF, 1.35 MB).
July 23, 2010
Emailing while sleeping.
A mytholingual encyclopedia.
A typographic zoo.
The origins of currency symbols.
Tracing the history of language families.
The mystery of Easter Island’s rongorongo script.
2D-FRUTTI, TANGOinPARIS, and other strained astronomical acronyms.
“Do you have a book with a title that was written by an author?”
A history of grawlixes (aka obscenicons).
Do words have a shape?
Why are we so good at reading?
Regional variations on Snap, Crackle and Pop.
Stuart Flexner on the techniques and thrills of lexicography (audio).
The contentious history of Times New Roman.
Words as a dangerous habit.
And to conclude in a rude mood, a brace from Language Log:
Pr@ck, Oedipal expletive, and other types of taboo avoidance.
“We are linguists, and we don’t give a shit.”