THE ANCIENT ROOTS OF PUNCTUATION
- Octothorpe (#)
Left, from the pen of Isaac Newton; right, detail from Johann Conrad Barchusen’s “Pyrosophia” (1698). Courtesy the Othmer Library of Chemical History, Chemical Heritage Foundation.
The story of the hashtag begins sometime around the fourteenth century, with the introduction of the Latin abbreviation “lb,” for the Roman term libra pondo, or “pound weight.” Like many standard abbreviations of that period, “lb” was written with the addition of a horizontal bar, known as a tittle, or tilde (an example is shown above, right, in Johann Conrad Barchusen’s “Pyrosophia,” from 1698). And though printers commonly cast this barred abbreviation as a single character, it was the rushed pens of scribes that eventually produced the symbol’s modern form: hurriedly dashed off again and again, the barred “lb” mutated into the abstract #. The symbol shown here on the left, a barred “lb” rendered in Isaac Newton’s elegant scrawl, is a missing link, a now-extinct ancestor of the # that bridges the gap between the symbol’s Latin origins and its familiar modern form. Though it is now referred to by a number of different names—“hash mark,” “number sign,” and even “octothorpe,” a jokey appellation coined by engineers working on the Touch-Tone telephone keypad—the phrase “pound sign” can be traced to the symbol’s ancient origins. For just as “lb” came from libra, so the word “pound” is descended from pondo, making the # a descendent of the Roman term libra pondo in both name and appearance.
Excerpt from a page from Villanova University’s “Rudimenta Grammaticæ” (1500). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Before there was any other punctuation there was the paragraphos—from the Greek para-, “beside,” and graphein, “write”—a precursor to the paragraph mark known as the pilcrow. A simple horizontal stroke placed in the left margin beside a line of text, the paragraphos was used in ancient Greece to call attention to conceptual changes in an otherwise unbroken block of text: a new topic, perhaps, or a new stanza in a poem. The paragraphos was a crude instrument: it was up to the reader to divine precisely why it had been employed in a given line. With the dawn of the first millennium, the paragraphos evolved, with some writers using the symbols Γ and γ, and others using outdented or enlarged letters to mark the beginning of each paragraph. Other writers began to insert the letter “K” for kaput, the Latin word for “head,” to demarcate sections of text. The use of “K” persisted, even as the Etruscan “K” faded in favor of the Roman “C,” until, by the twelfth century, kaput became replaced by capitulum—“little head,” or “chapter,” in Latin. The “C” became a new paragraph mark enthusiastically adopted by monks, whose ecclesiastical documents produced early examples of the modern chapter. Decorated with a vertical bar (shown here, in “Rudimenta Grammaticæ,” from 1500), “C” appeared as ¢ and, later, ¶; concurrently,paragraphos gave way to the Old French paragraphe, then to the Middle English pylcrafte, and, finally, to its modern name, “pilcrow.”
Graffiti from Pompeii, circa 79 A.D. From Jan Tschichold’s “Formenwandlungen der &-Zeichen” (1953). Courtesy Tschichold family.
The first recorded ampersand—a rudimentary ligature of the letters “E” and “T” from the Latin word et, meaning “and”—was scratched onto a Pompeian wall by an anonymous graffiti artist around the first century A.D. (shown above, image one). In time, the ampersand became a ubiquitous symbol: by the nineteenth century it was taught to schoolchildren as a twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet. Before that, however, it spent an entire millennium in competition with a rival mark. The “Tironian et” (⁊), had the twofold advantage of a head start and an impeccable pedigree. Created in the first century B.C. by Tiro, secretary to Rome’s famous orator Cicero, it was well established as part of Tiro’s extensive shorthand system, the notae Tironianae, by the time the proto-ampersand arrived a century later. The Tironian et continued to thrive in the Gothic-script religious texts of the Middle Ages but eventually fell out of use, along with the rest of Tiro’s system. The ampersand, meanwhile, evolved, as newly legible Roman and italic scripts made their way from Renaissance Italy, eventually assuming its familiar form (above, right, forty-five through forty-eight). Nowadays, the ampersand is everywhere—except in Ireland, where observant motorists may still spot a Tironian et adorning the occasional Gaelic traffic sign.
Rylands Medieval Collection, Latin M.S. 155, fol. 70 recto. Courtesy university librarian and director, the John Rylands Library, the University of Manchester.
In his 2005 essay “Towards a History of the Manicule,” Professor William H. Sherman—the sole historian of this idiosyncratic mark—wrote that, between at least the twelfth and eighteenth centuries, the manicule was possibly “the most common symbol produced both for and by readers in the margins of manuscripts and printed books.” First recorded in the “Domesday Book” of 1086, the manicule—taken from the Latin maniculum, or “little hand”—was a mark that readers drew to call out points of interest. For the next several hundred years, scholars marked up the margins of their classical texts, law manuals, and notebooks with manicules drawn in a wide variety of styles. But, as was the case with many other marks, the arrival of printing in the fifteenth century triggered a crisis for the manicule: with printed versions of the symbol—and of other reference marks such as * and †—now available to writers, “authorized” notes began to spring up in the margins, encroaching upon the space once available to the reader. The printed ☞—sometimes called a “mutton fist” in Old English slang—overtook its handwritten counterpart, and was overtaken in turn by the numbered footnote. Today, the manicule is used only rarely in printed works, often to lend texts a vintage flavor, but it still appears on the returned-to-sender stamps of the United States Postal Service.
Dotted diples in the margins of an eighth-century psalter (circa 750). Courtesy Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.
Like the pilcrow, the diple, or “double” (>), is a truly ancient mark. Created in the second century B.C. by Aristarchus, librarian at the great institution at Alexandria in Egypt, the diple was used in the margins, like the later ☞, to mark something of interest on the corresponding line. Quite unlike the manicule, however, the diple underwent a rapid transformation from critical mark to authorial one: a scant few centuries after its creation, Christian writers began to use the diple to mark not noteworthy text but Biblical quotations in an era when Christian books outnumbered all other works four to one. Over time, a number of variations on the diple began to appear as citation marks: some writers added a dot between the wedge of their marks (featured here, in the margins of an eighth-century psalter), while French manuscripts from that period appear with the dotted diple rotated to create a “V”-shaped mark. By the end of the eighth century, the original diple had fallen out of use. Its final demise, like the manicule’s, was caused by the advent of the printing press. Type designers were strangely reluctant to cast the diple in lead, and almost overnight that mark, and its variations, were replaced by double commas (,,) hung in the margins around cited portions of text. The diple was dead, and the modern quotation mark was on its way.
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