Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Language of Confusion: Punctual

Give Liz credit for this idea, because it’s an awesome one, none other than the origin of punctuation itself.

The why of punctuation is easy. The printed word is a lot different than speaking. There’s no intonation or volume to know how something is being said. Thus, punctuation. But where did those symbols come from? Obviously no one’s going to wonder why we call a question mark a question mark. Why is the symbol a curly-cue with a dot under it? Look at it, sitting there finishing my question. Weird. And why when I’m excited is it a vertical slash with a point?

The period, or full stop, is a pause between sentences. The etymology is from the classical Latin periodus, literally meaning a complete sentence. The symbol is older than the word, having first been used by the Greeks to show the end to a thought in the second century BCE, before there were even spaces between words. It was given more wide use throughout Europe by 800 AD, even appearing in the middle of sentences has brief pauses rather than the full stop we know it as.

Other punctuation marks, like “-”, “/” and “:” were introduced to mark pauses, and then our friend “,” came around and soon after, “;”did, too. The symbols dueled for years but eventually “,” emerged as the victor, inserting pauses into our written phrases for years to come. The word comma is actually a phrase in Latin meaning “short phrase”, which comes from the Greek komma, meaning “clause”. It showed up in the 1520s while the word semicolon showed up in the 1640s, both naming symbols that had already been in use. Oh, and the word colon? Itshowed up in the 1540s, from colon in Latin and kolon in Greek, meaning limb (you know, part of a whole). Useless trivia of the day: it’s also distantly related to the word scalene.

The question mark and exclamation point are both the creation of scholars working in Latin. ? was originally the wordquaestio” at the end of any sentence that was a query. As you can imagine, it got annoying to write all that. It was shortened to “qo”, but that could be confusing if it was interpreted as a word, so they mashed the q on top of the o. Then the o shrank to a dot and the lower curve of the q disappeared. And so we have ?. Similarly, the exclamation point originated as “io”, an exclamation something like “Whee!”. Again, the o turned into a dot and the i lost its dot, making !.

Well, those are the big ones. Maybe next week I’ll look at some of the other ones and you can rest easy knowing just where the symbol “ comes from.

TL;DR: punctuation marks were made by different grammarians who couldn’t stand each other’s symbols for pauses. Also Latin.



  1. As a fellow blogger, I enjoy each visit to your fantastic blog and I suppose I need to highlight this fact with some punctuation!! Thank you!

  2. Okay, that thing about the "?" is cool.

  3. So ? and ! used to be words? Wow.

  4. Excellent post! Ancient Greek manuscripts certainly did not have spaces between words, buttheywerestillabletoreadthem.

  5. And there we have their origins.

    Will % be among other punctuations yet to come?


Please validate me.