Henry Hitchings’s terrific book The Language Wars has a brief note on old names for exclamation marks (aka exclamation points):
Exclamation and question marks were not much used until the seventeenth century. Ben Johnson referred to the former as admiration marks, and they were casually known by the names shriekmark and screamer before exclamation mark became standard . . .
Admiration mark? Shriekmark? Screamer? Amused, I went looking for more and found that exclamation marks also went (and maybe still go) by the names shriek and Christer. The resulting tweet prompted a flurry of responses, so I want to extend the discussion here, where there’s more space.
Few appear in the standard reference books, but the American Heritage Dictionary includes screamer, which Eric Partridge says dates to around 1920 and was used mostly by “printers, authors, journalists, typists, and copy-writers” (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 1937).
Partridge says shriek-mark comes from plain old shriek, first used this way about a century and a half ago, and that both had colloquial use among authors and typists; ditto Christer. Writer Steven Poole tells me he inherited his maths teacher’s habit of calling n! (n factorial) “n shriek”. Here’s Partridge:
[Look away now if you’re sensitive about rude anatomical words.]
To these colourful terms we may add bang, pling, smash, soldier, and control (via About.com); gasper, startler, and dog’s cock (from Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves); the more alliterative dog’s dick; and slammer. Plausible but unverified names include ball-bat, boing, dembanger, eureka, screech, shout pole, smash, spark-spot, and wham.
Which of these have you used, or heard? What others are there?
From Twitter: surprise mark (anecdotal), skeer mark (Kentucky, 1893, via @TweetsofOld), huutomerkki (= “shoutmark” in Finnish, via @Tuumaru), and exclam, a neat clipping used in the TV comedy Raising Hope (via @HollyHunt913).
@Manganpaper also sent me this brief historical note on terminology, and says John Hart calls ! “the wonderer” in his 1551 essay “The opening of the unreasonable writing of our Inglish toung” (cited in The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol. III).
Megan Garber at The Atlantic has followed up on this post: ‘Screamer,’ ‘Slammer,’ ‘Bang’ … and 15 Other Ways to Say ‘Exclamation Point’. She writes: “It’s not going anywhere, guys — and the Internet has only increased its power. We might as well have some good names for it.”
Oh man, I am so boring. I’ve used exclamation point and that’s it. I haven’t even heard of the other terms. I feel like such a milquetoast now.
I remember “n shriek” from my schooldays (60s and 70s) but I always took it to be a cutesy-poo in-joke among mathematicians. I didn’t imagine that anyone would call a literary exclamation mark a shriek. Maybe I’ll start now.
I still think “n shriek” is cutesy-poo. There’s more potential in “n bang” or “n dog’s cock,” but “n Christer” hits it just right, I think.
Agreed christer. (Am I using that correctly?)
A quick first glance at your article ‘header’ this morning immediately suggested to me that you may be discussing the various exclamatory sounds with which most fanzines of the super hero genre of comic books might be familiar— bold-capped THUNKS! THWACKS! SLAMS! KAPOWS!, and such.
But clearly I was dead wrong. (Pays to read beyond the first few words. Doh!)
Frankly, the “dog cock” (“dick”) appellation for the exclamation mark, for me, is a tad gross (especially while eating breakfast), but then again if we want to go down that route, substituting say a male whale’s ‘appendage’ could even more emphatically make one’s point. A whale-of-a-tale, indeed!
@limr.— Don’t feel like an odd-ball in your familiarity w/ “exclamation point” as your sole default term for the exclamation mark. Back in my grammar school days in Canada, exclamation “point” was generally accepted as the alternative, to “mark”, and to this day, that’s the only term I’m used to. “Shriekmark”, or “screamer” *, not so much.
I would think in the journalism/ publishing trades, these more bizarro (my opinion) terms were coined, to some degree, to break the monotony of the job, and inject a little fun into what at times could be a tedious endeavor.
*I’ve heard “screamer” used in sports broadcasting parlance. In golf, to describe an extremely low-flighted, lengthly shot that barely rises above the fairway. (“Worm-burner” is an alternate descriptive term.)
And in baseball, describing a low, hard-hit line-drive through the infield that is just too hot, or far-out-of-reach for the defense to handle.
Of course, “screamer” could just be an out-of-control fan, yelling at the top of their lungs. HA!
Leonore: I’d say that’s not unusual. I’ve only ever used exclamation mark, and I’d only heard of one or two others before I went looking.
David: Maybe it’s common enough in the maths-teaching community. I feel like trying out a variant too, starting with startler.
Alex: I did warn you! Based on Twitter chats, the two dog-related terms seem pretty popular among UK journos. I prefer the more evocative and family-friendly names, though, like slammer and wham.
It is called admiración in Spanish.
Dorothy Sayers used “screamer” in Murder Must Advertise back in the 1930s. (She herself had worked for an ad agency for a while.) And “bang” used to be fairly common in Unix shell programming (along with “splat” for *) a few decades ago.
For me it is usually bang, though I screamer appears in Murder Must Advertise (1933) by Dorothy L. Sayers: Mr. Copley is dictating a headline. I also remember seeing christer explained in some book, though I don’t remember which book: what I recall is the example sentence for an alternative meaning of the word: “Oh, he’s simply a fearful Christer, preaches in chapel every Sunday and all that.”
The Jargon file says (s.v. ASCII): “Common: bang; pling; excl; shriek; exclamation mark. Rare: factorial; exclam; smash; cuss; boing; yell; wow; hey; wham; eureka; spark-spot [in the INTERCAL programming language, where spark means ‘apostrophe’ and spot means ‘period/full stop’]; soldier.”
Found it! Mencken, The American Language. Here’s an excerpt from the second edition text of 1921, which I quote in full because I think it’s of general interest. I think this passage was substantially unchanged in the fourth and final edition (1936?).
Im’ not sure if Mencken means by “an English correspondent” a journalist or just someone who wrote him a letter.
In Perl (and probably other coding languages) a compiler message indicator, #!, is known as a shebang from hash + bang. It’s one of my favorite bits of ‘computerspeak’.
It’s read out loud too. So “#! /usr/bin/perl” is said as “shebang user bin Perl”.
Peter: Ah. That could be how Ben Johnson’s preferred term came about.
Tom: Thanks for the example. I’m told bang is still a common name for it in computer science. (And splat for * is perfect.)
John: Bang seems to be quite a popular variant, and it’s one of the few I was already aware of. When I saw Christer mentioned in this context, I looked it up and saw the meaning you mention, among others – though not the exclamation mark sense, which I imagine has something to do with the exclamatory expression Christ!. I didn’t consult the Jargon File, but it looks as though a couple of the unofficial lists I found did. Thanks for the reference.
aslathair: I like it too. My programming skills are minimal, but I’ve noticed “#!” quite often and didn’t know it had its own name. Shebang fits it very well.
‘Bang’ is also found in the name of the interrobang punctuation mark.
Back when I was a proofreader (several decades ago), we called it “bang.”
[…] Ewing sayings; and Stan Carey explored some U.S. regional slang. On his own blog, Stan had fun with alternative names of the exclamation mark and asked for your suggestions. […]
In perhaps a bit of art imitating life, I suggest the word “bazinga!” has the requisite pizazz, and intrinsic ‘twang’ to qualify as yet another alternative term for the exclamation mark.
For those on the other side of ‘The Pond’ who may not be familiar w/ this word, it’s the signature expressive substitute for “Gottcha!” used w/ some regularity by the know-it-all (in his own mind), über-nerdy Dr. Sheldon Cooper character, Cal Tech astrophysicist, on the popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”.
A “bazinga!” it is!
acilius: N boing has a good ring to it.
John: Excellent. Thanks a lot for adding that.
Peter: Yes indeed. I should perhaps have mentioned this in the post.
Hat: Bang is one of the best words for it, I think; it’s catchy, inoffensive, and efficient.
Alex: It certainly has pizzazz. You’re welcome to it.
I tweeted you what I found in a U. S. newspaper trivia column from 1893 entitled, “Did You Know?” -“That the printer’s name for an exclamation point is a “skeer mark.” @tweetsofold
Thanks very much, Julia! I’ve uploaded the clipping you found in the Kentucky Hartford republican:
[…] First lifts the lid on the veritable cornucopia of alternative terms for this humble mark. “Bang, pling, boing, shriek, gasper, screamer, Christer! And other exclamation mark aliases” pulls in these terms and more, with some informed commentary to follow. Full disclosure: […]
I can only ever think of Victor Borge’s phonetic punctuation when I see exclamation marks (and many other punctuation marks, too), so I always think of it as “Fsssss Pwttt” (not sure if there are too many t’s there….).
Haha, indeed. And herefor those few who wouldn’t know what Nurn is refering to.
Nurn, Sean: It had been a couple of years since I watched Borge’s wonderful performance — thank you both. “Fsssss Pwttt” seems about right.
We call them screamers in the newsroom, Stan. It always makes me smile when an editor tells me to ‘add a screamer’ to a headline…
Or sometimes ‘lose the screamer’!
Sharon: Screamer probably suits a newsroom more than other contexts. I still associate the word with football comics: a screamer was a powerful or sensational goal (or the shot that produced it). It is a bit Alan Partridge…
I remember being taught at school that exclamation marks (sic) should only be used with real exclamations: What a lovely day! How interesting! Well, I never!
We were told that they should never be used merely to add emphasis to a proper sentence. I never took any notice of that and I really don’t think anyone else ever did!
Peter: A spurious rule, but I suppose the teacher was mainly trying to reduce their potential use. As a child I remember being struck by the frequency of exclamation marks in the comics I read: hardly any lines ended in full stops.
[…] of a passage in Henry Hitchings’s book The Language Wars, has done something great: He has researched our exclamatory euphemisms. The marks’ aliases, it turns out, are descriptive! And also alliterative!! And also […]
[…] of The Atlantic has followed up on Stan Carey’s recent blog post about the many-splendored names of the exclamation mark with an article entitled “‘Screamer,’ ‘Slammer,’ ‘Bang’ […]
[…] player, here’s a fab article about some historical names for our friend, the exclamation mark: Bang, pling, boing, shriek, gasper, screamer, christer, and other exclamation mark aliases. Warning: some are […]