• Carmen Marie Fabio



It was probably meant to be that I ended up working with words as I have early memories of a fascination with my mom’s old Underwood typewriter, hauling its cast metal frame out of the buckled case off the dusty shelf to meticulously type out each key – upper and lower case – paying special attention to the symbols.

This beast of a machine had only the bare necessities on its keyboard but for some reason included options to type ½, ¼, and ¢, all which disappeared from modern keyboards decades ago, the latter probably because virtually nothing is priced under a dollar anymore.

Before being incorporated into email addresses, I remember the @ sign meaning ‘each’ though Wikipedia contradicts me somewhat, saying it more accurately represents ‘at a rate of’ which, in my book, still means each. There’s reportedly no English word for the symbol but the French have two, using both ‘arobase’ and ‘a commerciale.’

The # symbol, known both as a hashtag and the pound sign (for imperial weight, not to be confused with the British pound sterling £) is still known as the number sign too. If you’re really geeky, you’ll know it’s also referred to as an ‘octothorpe,’ a term so rarely used my spellcheck keeps insisting it’s a mistake.

There are, technically, four sets of brackets on your computer keyboard if you count parentheses (), curly braces {}, chevrons <> (also called guillemets), and traditional brackets []. If these are not enough to meet all your bracketing needs, there are shortcuts to insert corner brackets 「 」 used in mathematics and double brackets ⟦ ⟧ to indicate a semantic evaluation function. I kid you not.

There are three separate horizontal dashes (not to be confused with a hyphen, underscore, or minus sign), each having its own significance. The wider ‘em dash’ denotes a break in the sentence. The ‘en dash’ (half the width of the em) effectively replaces the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ or the preposition ‘to.’ The figure dash is reportedly named as it’s the same width as the font and is used in phone numbers.

The difference between a slash and a backslash is fairly obvious but what about an oblique, stroke, and solidus? They’re essentially the same thing as a slash with origins in British currency. Only the backslash, favoured by Windows and DOS operating systems, seems to have no other valid use in the English language.

There is, thankfully, only one question mark and one exclamation point (I refuse to discuss the inverted ones) but if you combine the two, you get an interrobang, used only for excitable questions, as in, “You did what?!

A little research can be a dangerous thing – ask any hypochondriac – and before long, I’d fallen down a rabbit hole of uncommon typography, exploring things like asterisms (a grouping of three when one sole asterisk just won’t do), a hedera – a frilly floral heart used in early Latin and Greek texts to denote page breaks, percontation point (basically a reversed question mark) to indicate snark and sarcasm, and even three dots to portray ‘because’ – basically an upside-down ‘therefore.’

I have to wonder if, in 50 years’ time, there’ll be a Wikipedia entry detailing the history of the conception of some of the useless emojis that grace our cellphones including the sweet potato, the floppy disk, the camel, and the lone red high-heeled shoe.

Scratch that, I just found out there’s a site called emojipedia.

Be careful what you google.

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