Notes on Shady Characters

shadyKeith Houston’s 2013 book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks is like catnip for word nerds. It’s rife with historical trivia about the more uncommon punctuation marks that have littered language history, including the pilcrow (¶), dagger (†), and interrobang (‽). It also provides background on the symbols we seen all the time, like the hash sign (#) or the ampersand (@). Intrigued? Of course you are! Learn more at and read on for some notes I took while reading the book. Caution: extreme geekery ahead.

Boustrophedon (adj. & adv.): from left to right and right to left in alternating lines (from Greek “as an ox turns in plowing”)

Komma, kolon, and periodos were initially dots denoting short, medium, and long pauses

— The pilcrow (¶) started as a C (from the Roman capitulum, meaning “chapters”) that was filled in with a vertical line by medieval scribes

— The word pilcrow originated as the Greek paragraphos, which became pelagraphe, which became pelagreffe, whose Middle English pylcrafte turned into pilcrow.

— Alternative names for the interrobang (‽): exclamaquest (which is my favorite), interrapoint, exclarogative

lb (for “pound”) came from the Roman libra, meaning scales or balances

oz (for “ounce”) came from medieval Italian onza, meaning twelfth of a Roman pound

lb with tilde above it (which was used to show a contraction), when written in haste, looked like the hash sign (#); combined with Latin pondo it became the “pound sign”

— The ampersand (@) started as Pompeian graffiti, later becoming part of the alphabet: “X, Y, Z, and per se (by itself) and” – i.e. “ampersand”

— The dagger (†), called obelos (Greek for “roasting spit”) was originally a straight line that marked superfluous lines in a text

— The asterisk (*) (from Greek asteriskos for “little star”) was used for marking genuine lines in Bible translation as opposed to added or mistranslated one

— The em dash (—) was used to censor names or curses, so “dash” became its own epithet

— Exclamation points on early typewriters were made with a period and apostrophe

— There were such things as the commash ,— and semicolash :— but they have faded from use

— Double hyphen (- -) instead of em dash was standard on typewriters; practice proliferated with spread of comics