‘The’ way to emphasise a word

June 14, 2016

Quotation marks for ‘emphasis’ are common in unedited writing but rare in formal prose, where italics are the usual approach. Bold and underlines are occasionally used; ditto *asterisks* and _underscores_. ALL CAPS and Initial Caps are sometimes favoured but can suggest shouting, humour, or a headline effect, so they’re more suited to informal contexts: both are popular on social media, for example.

There’s an anomalous example in a book I just read, Rough Ride: Behind the Wheel with a Pro Cyclist, an engrossing memoir/exposé by Paul Kimmage (Yellow Jersey Press, revised edition, 2007). It occurs about halfway in; Kimmage is describing the effect of Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France:

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The Tironian et (⁊) in Galway, Ireland

September 18, 2014

Over the door of the Warwick Hotel in Salthill, Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, sits a very old and unusual typographical mark. Between Beár (bar) and Bialann (restaurant) there is a Tironian et (⁊), Latin for and.

stan carey - warwick hotel, salthill galway - tironian et

The Tironian et is a remnant of Tiro’s shorthand system, which was popular for centuries but is now almost entirely discontinued. The mark lives on in just a couple of writing systems, one of which is Irish.

Even Irish people who respond to the phrase Tironian et with blank looks are familiar with it from bilingual street signs like this one:

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Book review: ‘Shady Characters’ by Keith Houston

October 1, 2013

Shady Characters - secret life of punctuation - Keith Houston - US book coverOne 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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Scott Kim’s symmetrical alphabet

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. There’s an 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.

Bauer’s Family Tree of Printing Types

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.

The curious land of the ampersand

May 13, 2009

The ampersand symbol & means and, though it often implies a closer relationship than the word. So “cheese & onion and chilli” refers to two kinds of flavour: (1) cheese and onion; (2) chilli. Similarly, screenwriting credits use & to indicate a writing team and and to indicate separate contributions.

The symbol seems to be a stylised ligature of et, the Latin for and, but in its innumerable old and modern forms this ancestry is only occasionally visible.


Historical_ampersand_evolution s

According to Adobe‘s short history of the symbol, the ampersand has been in use for almost two millennia. It was popular enough to be appended to alphabets as early as the 11th century (see 3.1.1 here).

Schoolchildren later learned it by rote as an extra letter, of sorts; in the 19th century they recited “A per se A” and “I per se I” to distinguish the words A and I from the letters A and I, and concluded their alphabets with “& per se and”, which means “(the character) ‘&’ by itself (meaning) ‘and’”. Ampersand, the name by which we know & today, is a corrupt abridgement of the phrase, and first appeared in dictionaries in 1837.

The ampersand is typically used to save time and space. Formally it is commonly used in references, business names, dictionaries, television and film titles, and when addressing a couple (“Dear Mary & Michael”), but as a direct substitute for and it is otherwise generally avoided in formal prose. &c and &cetera were once used frequently for etc., but these forms are now rare and can be considered old-fashioned. H. W. Fowler used & in early editions of the pocket and concise Oxford dictionaries and throughout A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

“inversion is archaic & poetic under such circumstances, & non-inversion normal”

Ampersand curveThe ampersand was adopted as shorthand for and in formal logic, and it gave its name to a pretty curve in mathematics (see figure). It is now frequently used in computer programming, e.g. in HTML, though its very versatility has caused problems. It is even more popular in informal contexts, such as notes, diaries, letters, text messages, instant messaging, and online social networks.

Here is an interesting example of its time-saving deployment in an old informal note:

“Some of the outer slips have got torn, &’ll need mending” (Philologist Frederick Furnivall in a note to James Murray, editor of the first Oxford English Dictionary, from Caught in the Web of Words, K. M. Elisabeth Murray’s biography of her grandfather.)

[Edit: And a beautiful ampersand which Sarah France arranged with bark chippings. If browsing ampersands appeals to you, there’s a Flickr pool and a blog devoted to them. Readers might also be interested in my post on the use of the Tironian et (⁊) in Ireland.]

[Image sources: 1, 2, 3]