Skip to main content

Interrobang: The Latest Punctuation Mark


With the addition of the letter J to the Roman alphabet in the early 16th century, languages that use that alphabet haven’t seen any new letters.  It’s hard to make the case for a new letter once literacy is widespread, since at that point, most everyone will already agree that the letters currently in use are enough.  The same thing goes for punctuation marks: who needs a new one, and how can you convince anyone to adopt it?  You’d need marketing skills to pull that off.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that it took an ad man to invent and promote a new punctuation mark, which he did with some success.  This visionary was Martin K. Speckter, the head of Martin K. Speckter and Associates, a Manhattan advertising agency.  In 1962, Speckter proposed the addition of a new punctuation mark in an article he wrote for Typetalks magazine, a trade publication about printing and typography.  The idea was that advertisers needed a new punctuation mark to convey disbelief.  For example, the phrase “You call that a raise?” suggests surprise, but the question mark doesn’t capture that.  Writing the phrase “You call that a raise!” doesn’t clearly express the same feeling, either.  Cartoonists have long split the difference by writing it “You call that a raise?!” but doubling punctuation is not usually done in English.

The new punctuation mark was a combination of the two: “You call that a raise‽” is how it looked.  Speckter solicited suggestions for a name for his new punctuation mark.  There were many suggestions, including exclamaquest and QuizDing, but the winner among the readers’ suggestion was interrobang.  

Interrobang is a portmanteau of interrogate and bang.  (Bang was an old typesetter’s slang term for exclamation point.)  The concept was created, and starting in 1962, advertisements… didn’t use it that much.  But interest in the interrobang did take off four years later.  In 1966, American Type Founders, who controlled 85% of all typesetting in the United States, issued the Americana typeface.  This would be ATF’s last new typeface (or font) before closing their doors following a bankruptcy in 1993, but it would also be the first typeface to include the interrobang.

In 1968, some Remington typewriters started offering an interrobang key on their newer models, with Smith-Corona to follow with including it on some of their typewriters in the 1970s.  The word started to appear in dictionaries, adding to its legitimacy.  Despite these early successes, the interrobang never really took off the way its inventor hoped it would.  Who would have thought‽

Today, many word processing fonts include the interrobang, even though still hasn’t gained common currency in English or in any other languages.  It still has a devoted following—unfortunately, not a following in print!

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Star-Spangled Banner: The Original Lyrics

If you’re an American (and quite possibly even if you’re not), you’ve certainly heard the tune called “To Anacreon in Heaven” numerous times.  It’s a stirring melody, and can often sound very proud, and if someone asked you to hum a few bars, you probably could do a creditable job of it, even if you have no musical ability at all.  The tune is that familiar.  Of course, it has another name that you probably know better: “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

But the song’s first name was “To Anacreon in Heaven”.  The song asserts that Anacreon is in heaven, right from the first line.  Whether Anacreon actually is in heaven, I’ll take no position on, but he most certainly is dead.  Anacreon was a Greek poet who lived from circa 582 BCE to 485 BCE, which is a remarkably advanced age for the times.  Anacreon was celebrated for his songs about drinking and love and having a good time.  Maybe not the weightiest of literature, but even the most serious poets and thinkers need to take a break now and …

Alcock and Brown: The First Transatlantic Flight

Since his celebrated landing in Paris 90 years ago, we often hear of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic.  He flew solo, taking off from Roosevelt Field in Brooklyn and landing in Le Bourget field in Paris after a flight of 33½ hours in his cramped, lightweight plane, The Spirit of Saint Louis.  Lindbergh was one of several individuals or teams who were competing for the Orteig Prize: a $25,000 purse offered to the first to fly from New York to Paris, offered by wealthy New York hotelier Raymond Orteig.  Lindbergh took off and landed perfectly, and managed to navigate the whole way without getting lost.  This was quite a feat in the days before computers to aid navigation, or the elaborate system of air traffic control that would come into being, once commercial airlines started to develop.  What Lindbergh did immediately made him an international hero and a household name for years after, with streets and buildings and yes, airports, named after him.  To this day, Charles …