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.
Anyone curious about the pointing octopus can see it here. (The illustration is included in the book, but the penises are not.) As if all that weren’t strange enough, apparently Petrarch had a habit of drawing manicules with a thumb and five fingers.*
Shady Characters shows how the demands of different text types (e.g. political pamphlets, theological debates, early novels) have influenced the use and form of punctuation, as in the engrossing chapter on quotation marks. Literary and technological norms are in constant, unpredictable flux, and the book’s engaging mini-histories document how this has affected our presentation of text, be it handwritten, printed, or typed.
In other hands this material might have become dense and pedantic, but Houston spins it well. He shows skilfully how, and where, some typographical marks spread while others waned or morphed into something new (as # arose from lb), and he acknowledges when the facts are uncertain. He also describes, without getting unduly sidetracked, how certain of them have been repurposed in electronic communication.
Fun facts abound. Early italics were lowercase only; the world’s longest footnote is introduced with the letter u; and the “ox-turning” style of writing (alternately L→R, R→L) is known as boustrophedon. The book reveals why some Qs have long tails and why H.L. Mencken, christened Henry, began using initials in his name: “his father broke the lowercase r letterpunches of a toy printing set one Christmas morning”.
There is a whole chapter devoted to the expressive interrobang, a “cult punctuation mark” more books should make use of, as I said in a recent review of Speculative Grammarian’s guide to linguistics. I was also pleased to see my photo of a Tironian et (⁊) on a Galway street sign in a chapter on the ubiquitous and much-loved ampersand, and wondered anew at how their respective fates contrast so drastically.
Each punctuation mark has a uniquely interesting past, and Shady Characters showcases them soundly, its rich and well-researched descriptions enhanced by ample illustrations and supplementary notes. There’s a nice account of footnoting itself, with special focus on the asterisk (*) and dagger (†), while the book also covers classical curios like the hypodiastole and diple periestigmene of Ancient Greece, and the percontation mark (⸮) and commash (,—) which enjoyed temporary favour centuries later.
Some claims struck me as inaccurate or excessive: I don’t think Cicero “crops up with indecent frequency in any discussion of punctuation or grammar” – though maybe that’s just me – and the semicolon has not been driven “almost to extinction”, despite some journalists’ claims: there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, and Houston’s own book makes frequent use of the mark. It also makes use of generic he (“a skilled debater gives his opponent enough rope to hang himself”), which I wish I didn’t keep seeing in books on language.
Hashtags are described as “terms used to group messages together according to common themes”, which is true but just one of their many linguistic functions, and the simplification does them a disservice. I don’t think paragraphs are “a purely semantic construct”, and, contrary to the book’s claim, quotation marks have indeed inspired pop songs in their name, as a quick search on YouTube proves.
But these are minor shortcomings that interfered little with the great enjoyment I got from Shady Characters. I read it cover to cover, but it’s the sort of book you can open at random and read and instantly love. Certainly you needn’t be nerdish about punctuation or typography to appreciate it: anyone interested in the broader subjects of literature, language and history will find much to relish here. As Houston writes:
In following the warp and woof of individual shady characters throughout their lifetimes, it is the woven fabric of writing as a whole that emerges. . . . Every character we write or type is a link to the past, and every shady character doubly so.
Disclosure: I received a copy of Shady Characters for review. Previous book reviews are here.
* Given this legacy of indexico-anatomical creativity, I think we should introduce little feet for footnotes. When I suggested it on Twitter, Sue Walder and Christina Scholz named these hypothetical marks pedicules, while Camilla proposed “tiny bottoms for endnotes”. Can we make this happen?