Weird Facts About 5 Punctuation Marks You See Everywhere

Hashtags, ampersands, and pilcrows, oh my! Grammar nerds, #ReadOn

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# Has a Name You’d 
Never Guess

Laura Formisano

Depending on when you were born, you probably know the # symbol as either a pound sign, number sign, 
or for the Twitter junkies among us, 
a hashtag. Turns out, none of those names are right: According to an 
engineer at Bell Labs (formerly part of AT&T), which made the symbol mainstream via its touch-tone telephones in 1968, that little hex is called an octothorpe. The octo logically describes the symbol’s eight points. As for the thorpe, some theories say it comes from the Old English word for village (thorp), referencing the hex’s appearance of eight little fields surrounding a central square; others say the Bell researchers were just really big fans of the late Olympian Jim Thorpe, and needed a cool-sounding syllable to finish their new word. #TheMoreYouKnow

@ Has Hilarious Names Around the World

Laura Formisano

A Dutchman calls it the monkey’s tail, an Israeli insists it’s a strudel. They aren’t bantering about some new simian-themed bakery; they’re just describing the @. Though shorthand use of the @ dates back to the 16th century, it took English speakers a remarkably long time to settle on 
a name. Today, we know it as the “at mark” or “commercial at” and are accustomed to seeing it in e-mail addresses. Meanwhile, the rest of the world was inventing brilliant descriptors, like the “little dog” (Russian), 
the “small snail” (Italian), and the straight-up “crazy A” (Bosnian).

! was a big pain to type

Laura Formisano

Though the exclamation point has helped express strong sentiments on 
paper since the 15th century, this upstanding punctuation mark didn’t get its own dedicated typewriter key until the 1970s. Before then, typists who wanted to use interjections in their work had to type a period, then backspace and type an apostrophe atop it. Secretarial manuals of the ’50s called this Franken-symbol a bang—not to be confused with an 
interrobang, which is an exclamation point overlapping with a question mark to indicate incredulity. Can you believe we stopped using this ‽

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¶ Was a Work of Art, 
Before It Turned Invisible

Laura Formisano

Before printed type, the paragraph mark (or pilcrow) was not only essential punctuation but also a Medieval style icon. In the Middle Ages, there were no standards for indenting paragraphs or using line breaks to indicate a change in topic; instead, every new paragraph was denoted by an elaborate, colorful ¶ (even if it fell in the middle of a line). These pilcrows were ornately drawn in red ink by specially-trained scribes called rubricators (from the Latin "rubricāre": to color red), often added at the very end of a manuscript’s construction. If a rubricator was on deadline, he might choose to skip drawing the laborious pilcrows altogether—which is why, hundreds of years later, they have all but vanished from the page.

& Has a More Complex Meaning Than You Think

Laura Formisano

You know when you see an & symbol (or ampersand) to pronounce it like the word and, but the word and symbol aren’t always interchangeable. The & symbol can denote a cozier relationship between two things. For example, have you noticed in movie credits that sometimes two names will be joined with an & and others with the word and? That’s because the Writers Guild of America uses the & symbol to say two writers collaborated directly with one another, while the word and means the writers worked on the script individually, at separate times. & that’s a wrap. Sources: smithsonianmag.com, Mental Floss, the Guardian and Shady Characters by Keith Houston (W.W. Norton)


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