12 May 2008

Underused Punctuation Terms

I've decided to make the next several days PUNCTUATION WEEK at Oz and Ends. Or perhaps I should say it will be a PUNCTUATION PERIOD. Ahem. I'll start with remarks on little known formal names for some punctuation marks.

pilcrow: ¶
For more on this little-known word, see Michael Quinion's World Wide Words article. That's where I first learned the formal name for what I'd thought of only as the "paragraph mark." It was once common as a sort of bullet point and in legal codes, but is now visible mostly to writers using word-processing programs.

virgule: /
Usually called the "slash" these days, though less common synonyms include "separatrix" and "stroke." It's similar to but not the same as the solidus, which is the diagonal line in a fraction. A virgule is closer to the vertical than a solidus, but usually one has to see them side by side in the same typeface to know the difference. On a typewriter, of course, they're the same (and I'll have much more to say about the typewriter's effect on punctuation this week).

guillemets: « »
These are the equivalent of quotation marks (a/k/a "inverted commas") in several languages, including French, Russian, Norwegian, and Persian. They're also the equivalent of quotation marks in several other languages, such as Danish and Czech, but in those cases they point the other way (at the quoted works rather than away from them). Swiss German follows the first convention; German and Austrian German the second. Finally, Finnish and Swedish surround quotations with two guillemets that both point to the right. Chinese typographers have adopted pointing-out guillemets to denote the title of a book. Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style says the word "guillemet" honors the the sixteenth-century typecutter Guillaume le Bé.

octothorpe: #
This is the most recent, and thus seemingly most artificial, of these punctual terms. Once again, Quinion's World Wide Words explains the history: "octothorpe" was Bell Labs jargon for one of those two function keys on touch-tone telephones that got labeled with symbols instead of numbers.

The tic-tac-toe symbol itself had been around long before, of course, usually called the "number sign" or the "pound sign" for what it symbolized. In much of the world, of course, the sign for a pound is £, and it's valuable to keep track of that sort of pound. And the symbol had other names--which is why Bell Labs wanted an official label.

Notwithstanding that effort, American telephone companies now refer to that symbol as "the pound sign," usually in a cheerful mechanical voice. British Telecom prefers "square," a coinage that dates all the way back to 1989. Other English-speaking countries call that button the "hash key," using an older term for the symbol apparently shortened from "crosshatch."

"Number sign" prevails in America when the same symbol is used to designate a number in a series. And the sign is often used to mean a "sharp" in musical notation, though typographically that should look different.

Most paradoxically, in proofreading, a # is the symbol for nothing, indicating that the typesetter should insert a space between two characters. Out of habit I use that symbol when I critique manuscripts, and usually forget to explain what it means. Some of my writing-group partners are no doubt baffled by my apparent love for the octothorpe.


Kelly said...

Love punctuation, love grammar, love all of it.

The guillemets seem to be going through a transition lately in Russia. I've noticed they're used for Titles consistently. But, in replicating speech, quotation marks are being used more frequently now. Kind of sad.

J. L. Bell said...

The eternal struggle between Westernizers and Russophiles!

Kelly said...

True enough, J.L. :)

Poor Russia. This endless battle. West vs. East. It's even in punctuation. It must be very tiring after awhile.