On the Dot: The Speck That Changed the World

Overview

Despite the humble origins of its name (Anglo Saxon for "the speck at the head of a boil"), the dot has been one of the most versatile players in the history of written communication, to the point that it has become virtually indispensable. Now, in On the Dot, Alexander and Nicholas Humez offer a wide ranging, entertaining account of this much overlooked and minuscule linguistic sign.

The Humez brothers shed light on the dot in all its various forms. As a mark of punctuation, ...

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Overview

Despite the humble origins of its name (Anglo Saxon for "the speck at the head of a boil"), the dot has been one of the most versatile players in the history of written communication, to the point that it has become virtually indispensable. Now, in On the Dot, Alexander and Nicholas Humez offer a wide ranging, entertaining account of this much overlooked and minuscule linguistic sign.

The Humez brothers shed light on the dot in all its various forms. As a mark of punctuation, they show, it plays many roles—as sentence stopper, a constituent of the colon (a clause stopper), and the ellipsis (dot dot dot). In musical notation, it denotes "and a half." In computerese, it has several different functions (as in dot com, the marker between a file name and its extension, and in some slightly more arcane uses in programming languages). The dot also plays a number of roles in mathematics, including the notation of world currency (such as dollars dot cents), in Morse code (dots and dashes), and in the raised dots of Braille. And as the authors connect all these dots, they take readers on an engaging tour of the highways and byways of language, ranging from the history of the question mark and its lesser known offshoots the point d'ironie and the interrobang, to acronyms and backronyms, power point bullets and asterisks, emoticons and the "at-sign."

Playful, wide-ranging, and delightfully informative, On the Dot reveals how thoroughly the dot is embedded in our everyday world of words and ideas, acquiring a power inversely proportional to its diminutive size.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An excellent history of an underexamined typographical mark." —London Review of Books

"To their credit, the Humez brothers take us beyond grammar vigilantism and demonstrate that even the most common punctuation marks serve a purpose beyond grammar. They focus on the history and use of the dot and those punctuation marks where it resides (semicolons, question marks, ellipses, etc.). They delve into uses of the dot beyond punctuation, in Morse Code and musical notation and mathematical and computational punctuation." —The Weekly Standard

"An engrossing collection of curiosities that rewards dipping in and out at one's leisure." —Library Journal

"In the emendations of proofreaders, the computer coding of internet engineers, the calculations of accountants, and the musical notations of composers, the Humez brothers catalogue an impressive array of meanings conveyed by the dot. The author's lively inquiries open surprising political and literary insights. Who would have guessed, in short, that a mere speck of ink could inspire such a fascinating foray?" —Booklist

"Ideal for etymologists and trivia buffs, this book covers an array of information and innovations on the relevance of this speck, from the preDewey decimal library of Alexandria to the modern global culture of URLs, instant messaging and the music of Stevie Wonder." —Publisher's Weekly

"Like its subject, the book is brief but wide ranging. This is not a straightforward history: Humez and Humez meander through etymology and culture, leaving the reader to, in effect, connect the dots. A must for academic and public libraries, this is the sort of book that can liven a class on the the history of orthography or design. Highly recommended." —Choice

Publishers Weekly

Usually overlooked, the dot is given star treatment by the Humez brothers, established writers on language (Latin for People), who cheerfully explore the dot's influence on language through history in this dense, tangent-filled book. Explaining that this is the "smallest meaningful symbol that one can make" with any writing or carving tool, the authors assert that the dot "has been one of the most versatile players in the history of human communication." Without it, Braille and Morse code would not exist; it would be harder to distinguish dollars from cents and hours from minutes; and music would have no half-beat. Even bullet points, the authors argue, are not unique to Power Point presentations but have been discovered in an ancient Egyptian tomb as the chief scribe of the tomb workers noted the completion of each vital task on his checklist. Ideal for etymologists and trivia buffs, this book covers an array of information and innovations on the relevance of this "speck," from the pre-Dewey decimal library of Alexandria to the modern global culture of URLs, instant messaging and the music of Stevie Wonder. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This is a humorous yet well-researched study of the importance of the dot in written language. The Humez brothers, writers who between them have authored both reference works and poetry, have mined a wealth of information on this seemingly unassuming mark. The book features chapters on the dot in its various incarnations and meanings, from the origins of the decimal system to the dot-com phenomenon, from musical notation to proofreading annotations. Not chronologically arranged, the book jumps around in history, providing funny anecdotes and absorbing asides that all cement the importance of the dot. The authors are obviously well read in wide-ranging areas, as evidenced by the text's extensive notes, yet they maintain an informal, conversational style and always relate their more obscure findings to the everyday. Perhaps not a work warranting serious study, this is nevertheless an engrossing collection of curiosities that rewards dipping in and out at one's leisure. Suitable for larger public libraries.
—Rebecca Bollen Manalac

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195324990
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 10/2/2008
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexander Humez has authored or co-authored ten trade and reference books, including collaborations with his brother such as Latin for People, Alpha to Omega, A B C Et Cetera, and Zero to Lazy Eight (also with J. Maguire). He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Nicholas Humez is a freelance writer and silversmith. In addition to the above collaborations, he is the author of Silversmithing: A Basic Manual, plus four poetry chapbooks. He lives outside Cleveland, Ohio.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Tiniest Sign
Time and Chance: Punctuality and the Coin Toss
Dit Dah: Codes to Sigh For
With a Bullet: Checklists and Dingbats
And a Half: Musical Dots
For Short: Mr., Sr., et al.
Dot Dot Dot: Ellipses, Lacunae, and Missing Links
Stet: Emendations of Immortality
Ninety-Eight Point Six: Decimals and Determinings
Dot Com: Computation Punctuation
Bang!: The Dot Meets The Family
Period: The End Point
Afterword and Acknowledgements
Notes
Bibliography
Index

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