Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and Other Typographical Curiosities by Keith Houston - review by Frank Brinkley

Frank Brinkley

Point Made

Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and Other Typographical Curiosities

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What began as a series of distinctiones – dots, really – in the third century BC, instituted by the scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium at the Library of Alexandria as a means for making the WALLSOFUNSPACEDTEXT in papyri more intelligible, has evolved into what we now consider punctuation. The developments undergone by his trio . · ·, which initially were placed after corresponding rhetorical units called the komma, kolon and periodos, are good examples of what has happened to most punctuation marks throughout history, as competing writers and critics have adapted the forms and usages of characters in the pursuit of standardisation, clarification or experimentation. In Shady Characters, Keith Houston relates such transformations and evolutions for his chosen symbols – manicule *, pilcrow ¶, interrobang , octothorpe #, ampersand &, at-sign @, asterisk * and dagger , a brace of hyphens and speech marks. 

After the first forays in Alexandria (the use of the asterisk and dagger, more properly known as the obelos, for textual criticism in early Homeric manuscripts dates from this period), the advent of Christianity brought a new wave of marginal scribblers. The early Bibles that survive illustrate the tug-of-war over

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