Book Review: Shady Characters*

If you are anything like me, then you are the worst sort of etymologist: the sort who will trace a word back as far as the record will allow then sit back and say, “Good. But why?” “Zinc” comes from the German Zink; “pepper” from the Greek peperi; the sports “jersey” comes from the name of one of the Channel Islands. This is all well and good, but why? I will finish the job before me and then have to fight the temptation to spend hours wending my way through lexical and narrative garden paths, reading ancillary information about the culture and historical moment in which a word is born.

In this respect, Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks [W.W. Norton & Co.] satisfies deeply. The book ostensibly covers the history and use of roughly 11 punctuation marks–one per chapter, with a few irony and sarcasm marks taken as a whole in the final chapter–though in the narrative of each mark’s birth and rise, we meet and hear about other marks. The chapter on the dash introduces us to the en dash, the em dash, the hyphen-minus, the em quad, the virgule, the commash, the colash, the semi-colash, the stop-dash, and a host of famous 18th century literary fornicators (Moll Flanders figures in prominently) and almost-fictional bumbling politicians (courtesy of Samuel Johnson’s political satires). The whole book reads this way: the first chapter on the pilcrow (¶) finishes up with a short note that Eric Gill, one of the preeminent typographers of the 20th century, was not just the creator of the Gill Sans and Perpetua typefaces, but also the sculptor of some racy life-sized statuary and accused posthumously of adultery, incest, child abuse, and bestiality. Try using Perpetua ever again without thinking of that.

Some stories are, by their very nature, less compelling that others. There’s no mention of bestiality in the story of the octothorpe (#), though you do get a little disquisition on the pound signs (both £ and #) and competing stories from Bell Labs about the origin of the word “octothorpe,” and unless you are really into commercial typography of the 1960s, you may not care much about the development of the interrobang. Overall, however, the stories presented are captivating. Houston’s research is superb–the endnotes take up a quarter of the book–and he is not tempted to explain away the odd twists or apparent contradictions in a symbol’s story. The at sign (@) was almost undone just as computing began; the dash and the hyphen were conflated into a nameless hyphen-dash-minus when typewriters came into use; the manicule, the most personal of typographical marks, made by individual readers to draw attention to a passage they found helpful, is now most frequently associated with commercial pointing hands.

Houston is not a professional typographer, but the tone of Shady Characters is both scholarly and accessible. For instance, the archaic punctuation symbols that gave rise to the hyphen, for instance, are exemplified in running English text, which is so much easier than trying to find a sublinear hyphen in a photo of a Greek papyrus. Assuming you can read papyri. Or Greek.

Shady Characters is also a beautifully typeset book, as any book on punctuation and typography should be. The hardcover is printed in two colors, and I know enough about book production to know what a headache all the special characters had to be during manufacturing. Mad props to book designers Abbate Design and Courier Westford Manufacturing.

My only quibble with the book (and a very minor quibble it is) is that some of the illustrations can be confusing or hard to read. One illustration of the Linotype justification mechanism, for instance, has 20 callouts but the caption only explains three of them, and some of the reproductions of papyri need slightly more contrast to be fully legible. And I have one caveat to the reader: this is a book that seems like it’d be well-suited to dipping into, skipping around in, and reading in small chunks. It is–provided you do so in order. Many later chapters mention the history or forebearers of symbols and marks covered in earlier chapters, and if you don’t know your diple from your asterikos, your head may be swimming.

If you like printing or typography, I heartily recommend the book. For a taste of what you’ll find, visit Houston’s blog Shady Characters.


*I was given a review copy of this book; I’m posting a review, however, because I liked it and think you would as well.


Filed under reviews

19 responses to “Book Review: Shady Characters*

  1. Ø

    Delightful as always. But why not spell “forebears” the old-fashioned (and etymological) way?

    • Kory Stamper

      You are not the first person to point this out: “forebearer” is what I grew up using, so it’s what I default to (the review was written pre-caffeine). All those “-er”s, stacked up like train cars! Whoo-whoo!

  2. I’ve no idea what an interrobang is but I want one!

  3. Ormigord … typographical and lexicographical geek love all in one place?! Apparently I need to own this book ASAP.

  4. Thanks for the review! I’m glad you liked the book. I’ll be making a note to look again at image sizing/cropping for the second edition.

    Thanks again!

  5. gosh, pilcrows and octothorpes. I use pilcrows all the time, and I never knew they had a name. Eric Gill’s racy statuary almost made it unhindered to the BBC HQ in Langham Place, only the powers that be apparently noticed in time and ordered him to knock bits off. Thanks for the post.

  6. Lovely review. I love wordplay… and commaplay, and asterikosplay, and playplay… I’m a wordchild at heart.

  7. Now I know what I hope I’m getting for Christmas.

  8. NineMuses

    Thanks for the review! As a college-aged word nerd, I nearly died of excitement when I learned such a book exists. I strong-armed my parents into getting it for me as my Hanukkah present! ^_^

  9. NineMuses

    Based upon this review, I bought the book and I love it! Thank you so much for introducing it to me!

  10. Thanks Kory I downloaded a copy last night and have been enjoying it!

  11. Based on your review I put this book on my wishlist for Xmas this year. I got it, and devoured it quickly. I loved it. Please don’t be shy about recommending more books, Kory!

  12. Gumball. Why isn’t this word in your dictionary? It’s already a word.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s