Thursday, January 10, 2013

Language of Confusion: Punctual II

We dealt with “.”. We dealt with “?” and “!”. We even talked about “:”, “/” and “,”. But what about all the other crazy symbols that have popped up in our language over the years?

The quotation mark, for example. “ or ” or " or whatever you write them as. I doubt the etymology stumps anyone (they’re markswe use for quotes…GET IT?), but where did the double-comma-hanging-in-the-air come from? Not to mention the rules on usage. I’ve seen a single mark for dialogue in some books and none at all in others.

Quotation marks can be spotted as early as 1516 in “De Vitis Sophistarum” by Flavius Philostratus. Unlike now, they weren’t part of the type, but rather appeared as two commas in the left margin every time dialogue appeared. No closing quotes, either. The comma-like shape might not be from the comma, either (or at least, not directly from it). It’s thought to have evolved from “>”, the diple sign in Greek, which more than two thousand years ago was not used as a quotation mark but just an indication of something significant, kind of like how you might underline something important. Its usage spread across languages and cultures, and eventually formed the little curves we have today.

Next we’ll look at brackets “[ ]” and parentheses “( )”. The word bracket showed up in the 1570s, nearly two centuries before the symbols appeared in printing. They were so named because of the “resemblance” to architectural supports. Yeah, let that sink in. Meanwhile, the word parenthesis showed up in the 1540sand meant words or clauses inserted into a sentence, a meaning we can still attest to it today, if not as often. It came from the Middle Frenchparenthèse, Late Latinparenthesis (addition of letter to a word) and Greek parenthesis (putting in beside). As for the symbols, the parentheses showed up in the fourteenth century, although it took two more centuries for them to become what we know them as (interruptions in a thought for a different piece of information). Square brackets are, of course, variations on those. And now a days we use them for emoticons [: { )

Finally, we’ll look at the apostrophe, like I have in the word “we’ll” there. And there. The word apostrophe comes from the Middle French apostrophe and Late Latin apostrophus. Latin, as usual, borrowed the word from Greek apostrophos, meaning “the accent of turning away”. It makes more sense when you look at where it came from, another Greek word apostrephein, or “avert or turn away”. You avert from the letter, omitting it. As for why it’s used as a possessive, well, back in Old English there was an e there, and as it evolved to Modern English, we stopped using it. As for why it’s that particular symbol, I haven’t been able to find a satisfactory answer on that besides it being used as a mark of omission for centuries. For information on usage, check this handy guide by The Oatmeal. I also found out that there’s a ridiculous amount of friction between people who are diehard apostrophe fans and people who want it banished from printing forever. Seriously, it’s Star Trek fans who the better captain is. Prepare for a violent explosion.


Tony Jebson’s page on The Origins of Old English


  1. Well, of course there would be people who want to eliminate the apostrophe. The people who don't know how to use it.

    I've seen apostrophes misused in blurbs for ebooks. Yeah, that's a big red flag for me. If they can't figure out how to use an apostrophe in the blurb, the book's grammar is probably so bad I won't be able to get through two pages.

  2. Kind of makes you want to toss a cluster-apostrophe-semi-colon device into the midst of those anti- and pro- apostrophe folks just to see what happens, doesn't it?


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