Interrobang

Roman Mars: In the beginning was the word, and the word was … well, actually, there was just one word … one long, endless word.

Keith Houston: For thousands of years, text in Europe had no spaces between words. There was nothing at all to guide the reader.

RM: That’s Keith Houston, He’s a returning 99pi guest and author of the book, Shady Characters.

KH: So the idea was that the reader would read it aloud, and they would have to find the boundaries between words, they would have to work out where sentences and clauses began and ended on their own.

RM: Sometimes, this never-ending string of letters would execute what was called an ox-turn. If the first line of a text read from left to right, the line below it would read from right to left, with the characters themselves drawn backwards. The point is: Reading was hard.

KH: So there was a librarian at Alexandria in the third century BC called Aristophanes, suggested that readers might want to use little dots which are very easy to insert between letters in order to help them remember where the pauses were.

RM: The system didn’t follow strict rules of grammar. It wasn’t about demarcating sentences or clauses, but about rhythm.

KH: It was initially a kind of stage direction, It was all about the performance of the text. So a point halfway up the line was a very short pause, a point at the bottom of the line was a longer pause, and a point at the top of the line was the longest pause, kind of like a full stop.

RM: Aristophane’s little dots formed the system from which all western punctuation stems. A partial thought, followed by the shortest pause, was a called comma. A fuller thought was called a colon. And a complete thought, a periodos, a period. More punctuation followed. Medieval scribes gave us the earliest forms of the exclamation mark. In the 8th century, Alcuin of York, an English scholar in the court of Charlemagne, quietly introduced a symbol that would quietly evolve into the modern question mark. Ever since, we’ve ended our sentences with one of these three marks: question mark, period, exclamation point.

JOE ROSENBERG: They’re called endmarks. It’s an exclusive club, and really hard to break into.

RM: That’s 99pi producer Joe Rosenberg.

JR: But today, the story of a punctuation mark that almost managed to join this exclusive cabal of three.

Penny Speckter: In the new Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the 11th edition, there it is, listed among the various punctuation marks. The Interrobang.

JR: This is Penny Speckter. And the mark she is talking about, The Interrobang, it’s a real thing. You could use it right now if you wanted to. But it’s still just a baby mark of punctuation. The story of it’s invention, and what it is exactly begins just a little over 50 years ago, with Penny’s late husband, Martin K. Speckter.

RM: You could say Martin was an idea man. He worked in advertising.

JR: And if you’re picturing a life of a New York ad executive, filled with cocktails, late-night brainstorming and Madison Avenue glamour, go right ahead. In the 1950s and 60s, Martin repped some of the biggest names in publishing, such as Barrons, Dow Jones, and the Wall Street Journal.

PS: We ate dinner out most evenings. And Martin got some of his best ideas just jotted down on the backs of old envelopes as everybody did.

JR: But Martin wasn’t in it for the glamour. He loved design, and he was typography nut.

PS: Martin was constantly reading books on punctuation, on typography on English usage and so forth. And when he died we had a seperate apartment with about 250 small printing presses; some of them this high, and then we had a really big one which took a full page newspaper.

JR: And do you actually have any you have any presses left?

PS: Yeah I have about 20 of them.

JR: Wow!

[Penny Laughing]

JR: It’s still a huge number.

PS: I know but they’re little.

RM: It was at this intersection of typographical nerdery and Madison Avenue moxie — that Martin K. Speckter had his big idea. It was the spring of 1962.

JR: This was the golden age of the advertising slogan. And Martin noticed something that’s still true today. That advertisements …

Clip: Mr. Owl ….

JR: are awash…

Clip: How many licks does it take to get the tootsie roll center of a Tootsie Roll pop?

JR: In questions.

Clips: Can you hear me now?
Clips: Got Milk?

JR: And not just questions, but excited questions, exclamatory questions. Questions like:

Wassup! Wassup! Wassup!

JR: And, of course …

Where’s the beef?

JR: But how, wondered Speckter, did you indicate that a question was exclamatory in writing? How did you make it clear on the page that it was both a question AND and exclamation? At least without placing question marks and exclamation points back to back.

RM: Speckter saw that in this case, the ancient model of reading still held. If you wrote an exclamatory question, the reader was still expected to work out the nature of the sentence through context, not punctuation.

PS: And we were having dinner one night when he came up with a solution for it, the interrobang!

JR: Speckter was the editor of a typography magazine called Type Talks, and In the March-April 1962 issue, in an article titled, “Making a New Point, Or How About That…” he proposed the first new endmark of English language, in 300 years.

RM: With the interrobang, Speckter 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 the bottom of the line, with the sharp vertical slash of the exclamation point nestled inside the sinuous curve of the question mark.

JR: The interrobang means exactly what it looks like. It denotes a question that expresses surprise or incredulity. This also makes it useful for rhetorical questions, most of which are, it turns out, also incredulous.

RM: 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‽” Although Penny prefers …

PS: Who forgot to put gas in the car‽ Which is not really a question.

JR: Speckter provided a few alternate designs for the interrobang, and readers of Type Talks wrote in with proposals for alternate names, including “emphaquest,” “interropoint” and — my personal favorite, “exclarogative.”

RM: Ooh, I like that one. Let’s use that one!

JR: Sorry Roman, they didn’t go with that one. Speckter’s original name stuck. Interrobang.

PS: “Interro” for interrogate and “bang” for the proofreader’s word for the exclamation point.

JR: Traditionally, printers didn’t use the term “exclamation point.”

PS: If you’re reading copy with somebody you’re never going to say “exclamation point” you say “bang!”

JR: When he came up with the idea and you talked about it together, how serious was he?

PS: Oh he was very serious! And he really thought that people in advertising would hook onto it.

JR: So, what happened to Speckter’s invention? If it really is in the dictionary, waiting to be used, why haven’t we seen more interrobangs?

KH: It’s not easy to invent a mark of punctuation that actually sticks.

JR: That’s Keith Houston again. And to be clear, Keith loves the interrobang. He’s rooting for it. So it pains him to say this, but it turns out that inventing a successful mark of punctuation, particularly and endmark, is really hard. History is filled with far more attempts at creating new marks.

KH: Pretty much all of which have failed. In around about the 16th century, 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 inverted exclamation mark and it went nowhere.

JR: 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 Herald Tribune in 1962 after the writer read Martin’s original piece in Type Talks. In the Tribune article, the writer called the interrobang, “true genius.”

KH: But unfortunately his article was published on the first of April and readers may have took it as an April Fool’s joke. So there was that little blip.

RM: Still, our little baby 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.

JR: And then the company slowly went bust.

KH: Americana was the last font they actually cut, and so they did not cut anymore interrobangs.

JR: But all was not lost! In the year 1968, the iconic typewriter company Remington announced that their latest model typewriter would feature an optional intrerrobang key.

KH: But I wonder if perhaps the fact that you had to pay some extra money to get an interrobang key might have turned people off.

JR: Today, the interrobang it‘s just barely hanging in there. The mark is recognized by Webster’s, just like Penny said, and it is included in a surprising number of computer fonts. It even has its own character in Unicode, the common directory of symbols which all computer fonts must reference. But Keith points out that it still hasn’t cleared the biggest typographical hurdle of all.

KH: I think that in order to really be content to consider it to be a real mark of punctuation, people have to use it without thinking about it.

RM: In other words, a truly remarkable mark of punctuation must be unremarkable. it must be banal.

JR: And banality is not one of the interrobangs strong suits. After Remingtons 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 because it’s fun, not because it’s needed.

RM: Keith has gone on to document ever more outlandish examples of the interrobang which have perversely, only made it stand out more, further undermining its legitimacy. A quick Facebook search yields at least two bands named Interrobang, one punk, one brass. In 2014, an Australian cartographer, in the state of Victoria, painted an interrobang on the roof of his house. It’s now visible on Google maps. And in 2017, the Minneapolis Star Tribune ran an obituary for the poet J Otis Powell, who had always ended his name an with exclamation point, but changed it to an interrobang before his death. None of these examples are in the service of an exclamatory question. They’re there to be noticed.

KH: You do sometimes see it on Twitter. Someone will ask a question and terminate it with an interrobang but then they’ll stick in hash interrobang, just to make sure that you absolutely got the joke, that you absolutely saw what they were doing. So the banality isn’t there yet. It still stands out.

JR: And for Keith this is the brass ring of punctuation: For ordinary people to employ the interrobang for no other reason beyond the fact that the sentence at hand calls for its use.

KH: Maybe then we can say that it’s made it. Maybe then we can say that it’s a real mark of punctuation.

JR: This left me with only one question.

JR: Have you ever seen any truly earnest, truly banal interrobangs, in the wild, so to speak?

KH: Who knows? Interrobangs could be lurking in an unself-conscious way in books, in newspapers. Perhaps we just don’t know about it. Perhaps it’s flying under the radar at the moment.

JR: However, I told Keith I might now of at least one genuinely, banal interrobang. Because it turns out, there’s this guy.

FE: I’m Frank Easterbrook.

JR: He’s a judge.

FE: Chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.

RM: He totally sounds like a judge.

JR: And he’s kind of a big deal! The court of appeals, by the way, is the second highest court in the land.

FE: and before that I was Deputy Solicitor General of the United States. The Solicitor General’s office is the office that argues the interest of the United States in the Supreme Court.

JR: And, just like Martin K. Speckter, the Chief Judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit is a typophile.

FE: Because then I started reading, I noticed that some things were easier to read than others. And I started looking in the back of the books because there would be a line on the last page saying, “This book is set in…” and it would then name the typeface and who designed the typeface. And that stuck with me ever since.

RM: And now, God help the lawyer who submits a brief to Easterbrook’s court in Times New Roman. The default font of our times does not fly in the seventh circuit.

FE: No it doesn’t. We strongly discourage Times New Roman. The reason why Times New Roman has been a plague is that, is that Times New Roman is a newspaper typeface. We want lawyers to use book typefaces. And so the national rule of Appellate Procedure 32 which I actually wrote, is the recommendation that if you … [fading slowly behind narration]

JR: The point is, Easterbrook, he knows things. Esoteric things. And he’s a stickler. In his courtroom, there’s a proper place and use for everything. And 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.

FE: I reached a point where I had written a rhetorical question in the opinion where I was tempted to use … You know, “Question mark, exclamation, point question, mark exclamation point!”

JR: And for a moment, he considered changing the sentence, just to avoid the indignity of putting all those marks back to back. Even though he knew it would make his argument less compelling.

RM: But then Judge Frank Easterbrook remembered something; an obscure mark of punctuation that would allow him to keep the sentence, in all it’s rhetorical glory, just as it was.

FE: So out came the interrobang!

JR: Jackpot! What better place for an un-self-conscious interrobang to appear than in the actual jurisprudence of the american legal system! Not that anyone was around to appreciate it it at the time. Most people at court assumed it was a printing error.

FE: And of course my clerks had this reaction when they saw it. They said, “Gee, there must be some garble or what happened?” And I told them, “No, this is a real character. It’s called an interrobang.” and they both immediately looked it up on Wikipedia where it has its own entry.

JR: Easterbrook slid his interrobang into a dense paragraph of legalese. I actually had to read the entire eight page opinion to make sure that he’d used it correctly. The sentence defies summary, but what I can tell you is that to the everlasting joy of Keith Houston, the deployment of the interrobang extremely banal.

Keith Houston: It’s just so matter of fact! It’s just, it’s just in there! There are, you know, pages before it and pages after it. There’s nothing to say, “Hey look, I’ve just used an interrobang!”

JR: Which, only gives Easterbrook’s interrobang even more authenticity. He clearly wasn’t showing off. Nor has he publicized it in any way since. But still, I had to administer one last test.

JR: Were you kind of like, chomping at a bit to use it?

FE: No.

JR: No?

FE: No, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to use it.

JR: Are you planning on using it again?

FE: If the occasion arises.

RM: 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 we told Easterbrook this, he laughed. He said he never intended to draw attention to the interrobang. He just thought it was the right mark to use.

Comments (11)

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  1. For the love of god what font was Easterbrook about to say they actually use right before you cut him off‽ I was distracted the entire rest of the episode.

    1. Antonia

      I agree! The whole “fade-out” effect seemed quite disrespectful to me (as if to imply that Easterbrook was ranting endlessly). And, yes, I wanted to know what font!

  2. Adam

    When i was listening to the part about naming the hash symbol, i though I should mention that in Hebrew the hash symbole is named the ladder sign, apparently named as a visual descriptor as well as to be audibly similar to the star key (in Hebrew)

  3. Brian Tang

    I’ve set my phone to autocorrect !? or ?! to ‽ and I end up using it without even thinking about it.

  4. Fred Hann

    I loved this episode!
    May I suggest that you eliminate “comprised of. . . .” from your vocabulary?
    You used that abominable construction twice within one minute around the 20’ mark.
    Sorry to be such a nit-picker, but if I didn’t think you wanted to “be best”, I wouldn’t.
    This really was my favorite podcast episode this year.
    Respectfully,
    Fred

  5. Tara D

    Yours is one of my favorite podcasts, and could that episode have been any better‽

    I’m a computer programmer, and as to your statement that “hash” was the British name for the pound sign, I recall it being used by American programmers in the 1980s, and probably much earlier. This was along with “bang” for exclamation point, “splat” for the asterisk, and “snail” for the at sign, and I assume that most of those came from the typesetting industry.

    One common use was in Unix shell scripts, in which an optional first line could begin with something like “#!/usr/bin/sh”. That line is often called a “shebang” by Unix shell programmers, sort of a portmanteau of “hash” and “bang”.

  6. Ultrawoman

    I never heard of the interrobang until now. It’s not even in my machine’s dictionary.

  7. Lisa

    I can’t help thinking “if the interrobang was around when the Riddler first appeared (1948), could it have caught on‽”

  8. As a linguist and second language acquisition professional, I can say that this would be more difficult for my students.

    The current solution (!?) Works just fine. This is called a digraph. We already have digraphs in English, think of the word church or short. Here you have two letters that are spelled to make one sound. It works with vowels too. Laid. Pier.

    Why have another thing I need to learn that I dont understand why? This mystery is very counterproductive for learners. Stick with what works.

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