I consider myself a pretty extreme typography and grammar nerd. I own Roy Blount, Jr.‘s book Alphabet Juice, which explains the origins of tons of normal and obscure words pretty much at Roy’s discretion. It’s tremendously interesting and wickedly geeky. You who are uninitiated might know Mr. Blount from the weekend NPR news quiz Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. He’s often a panelist—a little geeky just by virtue of being on NPR, but just from listening to him on there, you have no idea.
Well, suffice it to say that because I’m such a nerd (Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves sends me into paroxysms of laughter anytime I crack it open) I was amazed to find several entirely new words for familiar typographical symbols in yet another favorite book, Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style. I thought I’d share the best of them with you below, and offer some explanation as to how they came to be.
Pilcrow: Before the evolution of real paragraph breaks, this “backwards P” was used to mark the division between trains of thought within a long, running text. Usually, in this day and age, we only see the pilcrow if we turn on “hidden characters” view in InDesign (or Word, if we must…). The pilcrow represents a carriage return, or “hard return” that’s visible to the reader as a paragraph break, as opposed to a “soft return” which is just there to manage rag or mitigate an unwanted hyphen. By extension of this meaning, it’s used by proofreaders to mark a place where two paragraphs should be separated in a manuscript. It may have originated as a C with vertical slash through it (or two), short for the Latin word for “chapter.”
Vinculum: Coming from the Latin word for a “bond” or “fetter,” this horizontal line above two numbers has the same meaning as parentheses in an equation (ie, to perform their operation first). With just one number under it, it’s an abbreviation for an infinite number repeating, such as .333… which goes on forever and could be written with just one 3 with a vinculum on top. And of course, the Vinculum is at the heart of every Borg vessel in Star Trek, processing and controlling the minds of all the drones. Surely a memorable definition of bondage.
Octothorp: Better known as a pound sign, number sign, or hash, the lowly “#” at the bottom of your phone keypad apparently has a conflicted and storied history. According to Bringhurst, it started out being used as a sign for a village, the square in the middle representing the town square and the open ended squares on the edges representing fields. The word “thorpe,” more often seen now as a surname, comes from the Old English for a hamlet or small town, so this makes some sense. According to Wikipedia and other web sources, however, the word came from a telephone engineer at Bell who wanted a better-sounding name for the “number sign” when pitching phones to customers in the 60s. It may have had to do with his admiration for athlete Jim Thorpe.
These all seem to be occasions in the exploration of the fringes of English where my high school Latin teacher’s maxim applies: “Language happens.” He’d say this, throwing up his hands, when logic simply failed to follow why a particular convention had evolved, either in the venerable dead language or our very live one today. Someday, we may be explaining to our children or grandchildren the eccentricities of today’s lingual evolutions: “internest”, “Hiberdating”, or “Paper GPS”.