In the beginning was the word, and the word was … well, actually, there was just one word … one long, endless word. For thousands of years, in some written languages, there was no space between words. People were expected figure out sentences and clauses while reading aloud.
Scriptio continua was the dominant form of writing for the Greeks and the Romans. Sometimes, this never-ending string of letters would execute what was called an ox-turn, first reading left to right, then switching to read back from right to left.
In the 3rd century BCE, a librarian in Alexandria named Aristophanes introduced the idea of putting in dots to indicate pauses, like stage directions for people performing texts out loud. Dots of ink at the bottom, middle, or top of a given line served as subordinate, intermediate and full points, corresponding to pauses of increasing length.
Aristophanes’ system became the basis for Western punctuation. A partial thought — followed by the shortest pause — was called a comma. A fuller thought was called a kolon. And a complete thought — followed by the longest pause — was called a periodos. These rhetorical units eventually lent their names to the comma, colon and period we know today.
More punctuation followed. Medieval scribes gave us the earliest forms of the exclamation mark. And in the 8th century, Alcuin of York, an English scholar in the court of Charlemagne, quietly introduced a symbol that would evolve into the modern question mark. Ever since, we’ve ended our sentences with one of these three ancient marks, called end marks.
There have, however, been attempts to expand this typographical toolkit, and include other end marks. One such example has made it into dictionaries: the interrobang (‽).
It was created by an ad man named Martin Speckter just over a half-century ago. In the 1950s and 60s, he repped some of the biggest names in publishing, such as Barron’s, Dow Jones, and the Wall Street Journal. Speckter was also a typography nerd, constantly reading books on punctuation and the English language. He and his wife, Penny, collected hundreds of printing presses of all kinds and sizes.
In the spring of 1962, Speckter was thinking about advertising when he realized something: many ads asked questions, but not just any questions — excited and exclamatory questions — a trend not unique to his time. Got milk?! Where’s the beef?! Can you hear me now?! So he asked himself: could there be a mark that made it clear (visually on a page) that something is both a question and an exclamation?!
Speckter was also the editor of the typography magazine TYPEtalks, so in March of 1962, in an article for the magazine titled “Making a New Point, Or How About That…”, Speckter proposed the first new mark of English language punctuation in 300 years: the interrobang.
The interrobang was a new kind of end mark. It denoted a question that expressed surprise or incredulity. This also made it useful for rhetorical questions, most of which are also incredulous. In his article, Speckter was already envisioning exclamatory-slash-rhetorical advertising slogans that could take advantage of the new mark, such as “What?! A Refrigerator That Makes Its Own Ice Cubes?!”
Speckter laid out a few different potential ideas for what the interrobang should look like, but quickly zeroed in on a favorite. His design collapsed the question mark and the exclamation point into a single glyph. The two marks, instead of being placed back to back, were now conjoined, sharing the same dot at the bottom.
At Speckter’s request, readers of the article also wrote in with proposals for alternate names, including “emphaquest,” “interropoint” and “exclarogative.” But he stuck with the original name — “interro” for interrogate and “bang” for the proofreader’s word for the exclamation point. (When giving dictation, people didn’t use the phrase “exclamation point.” They would just say “bang.”)
But, as punctuation expert Keith Houston explains, “it’s not easy to invent a mark of punctuation that actually sticks.” Houston loves the interrobang, but notes that history is littered with failed attempts to create new end marks. “Around the 16th century,” for instance, “the percontation mark, this rhetorical question mark, lasted about fifty years before it disappeared. There was one invented by a kind of renaissance man called John Wilkins who proposed an irony mark and it went nowhere.”
And then there’s the interrobang, which, seemingly from the day it was born, faced a string of bad luck. For example, an article praising the interrobang appeared in the New York Herald Tribune in 1962. In the Tribune article, the writer called the interrobang true genius. Unfortunately, his article was published on the first of April and it may have been that the readers took it as an April Fool’s joke.
Still, this punctuation mark persevered. In 1966, a company called the American Type Founders — a legendary design firm that created some of the most widely used typefaces of the 20th century — unveiled a new typeface called Americana that included an interrobang, but the foundry was in decline, and Americana was the last type typeface they ever cut.
Then, in 1968, the iconic typewriter company Remington announced that their latest model typewriter would feature an optional intrerrobang key. Still, it was optional — an extra — costing extra money. It failed to catch on.
Today, the interrobang is just barely hanging in there. It has its own character in Unicode, the common directory of symbols which all computer fonts must reference. But Keith Houston points out that it still hasn’t cleared the biggest typographical obstacle of all: “I think that in order to really consider it to be a real mark of punctuation, people have to use it without thinking about it.” In other words: a truly remarkable mark of punctuation must be unremarkable.
Alas, banality is not one of the interrobang’s strong suits. After Remington’s brief attempt to give it a key, it never made it onto any standard keyboards. And, now, if it is included in a font, it’s accessible only within a nested series of menus and selections. So when people do use it, they’re deliberately going out of their way to do so. They’re using it to make a sort of statement, not because it’s needed. For it to truly succeed, ordinary people need to employ the interrobang for no other reason beyond the fact that the sentence at hand calls for its use.
Houston says these are rare, but has found at least one genuinely banal interrobang, used by a man named Frank Easterbrook. Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, Easterbrook used to be Deputy Solicitor General, arguing the interests of the United States in the Supreme Court. He is also a typophile, and has no patience for briefs written in Times New Roman, a newspaper typeface (he wants lawyers to use book typefaces).
In May of 2011 Easterbrook was writing a ruling for a case, the case of Sears vs. Crowley, when he realized he’d written himself into a corner. “I reached a point where I had written a rhetorical question where I was tempted to use, you know, “question mark, exclamation point, question mark, exclamation point,” he recalls. Then he remembered the interrobang. His clerks thought it was a typo, but he assured them it was quite intentional. It was also very, very banal — he wasn’t showing off and he didn’t publicize his usage.
Shortly after Easterbrook issued his opinion, his quiet use of an obscure form of punctuation was spotted by a legal blog and added to the interrobang’s Wikipedia page. When Easterbrook learned this, he laughed. He said he never intended to draw attention to the interrobang. He just thought it was the right mark to use.
For more information, images and credits regarding the second part of this episode on the “octothorpe” click the link above!