Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks

Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks

by Keith Houston


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“An absolutely fascinating blend of history, design, sociology, and cultural poetics—highly recommended.”—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

A charming and indispensable tour of two thousand years of the written word, Shady Characters weaves a fascinating trail across the parallel histories of language and typography.

Whether investigating the asterisk (*) and dagger (†)—which alternately illuminated and skewered heretical verses of the early Bible—or the at sign (@), which languished in obscurity for centuries until rescued by the Internet, Keith Houston draws on myriad sources to chart the life and times of these enigmatic squiggles, both exotic (¶) and everyday (&).

From the Library of Alexandria to the halls of Bell Labs, figures as diverse as Charlemagne, Vladimir Nabokov, and George W. Bush cross paths with marks as obscure as the interrobang (?) and as divisive as the dash (—). Ancient Roman graffiti, Venetian trading shorthand, Cold War double agents, and Madison Avenue round out an ever more diverse set of episodes, characters, and artifacts.

Richly illustrated, ranging across time, typographies, and countries, Shady Characters will delight and entertain all who cherish the unpredictable and surprising in the writing life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393349726
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/20/2014
Pages: 338
Sales rank: 280,680
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Keith Houston is the author of Shady Characters and the founder of He lives in London.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

How to Read this Book xii

1 The Pilcrow 3

2 The Interrobang 25

3 The Octothorpe 41

4 The Ampersand 59

5 The @ Symbol 79

6 The Asterisk and Dagger 97

7 The Hyphen 121

8 The Dash 145

9 The Manicule 167

10 Quotation Marks 187

11 Irony and Sarcasm 211

1 Irony in History 212

2 Ironies 223

3 Digital Sarcasm 229

Afterword 245

Further Reading 247

Acknowledgments 249

Notes 251

Illustration Credits 321

Index 325

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