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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!


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