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10 Fascinating Typographical Origins

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A typographical character is simply a printed symbol—this includes letters, numbers, and punctuation marks. The ? is called a question mark; ( and ) are called parentheses; and ; is known as the semicolon. But you know that already, and I suspect you’re beginning to wonder how one could possibly wring drops of “fascinating” from the dry towel of typography. And that’s fair. But did you know the division sign has a name? What about the mysterious origins of the paragraph sign? Where did the % sign come from? ¿Why on Earth do Spanish-speakers put those upside-down question marks at the beginning of their sentences? Read on!

The Pilcrow—¶

Gazette Pilcrow

The pilcrow, also less elegantly called the “paragraph mark,” serves a number of purposes, most of which involve denoting the presence or location of a paragraph in one way or another. Most commonly, it’s used in word processing programs to indicate a “carriage return” “control character;” that is to say, a non-permanent mark showing where a paragraph ends. There is disagreement over the origin of the name; The Oxford English Dictionary, for one, likes to think it comes from a string of corruptions of the word “paragraph.” I prefer to side with the Oxford Universal Dictionary, which suggests that the sign itself looks a lot like a featherless crow—a “pulled crow.” The symbol itself derives from the letter C—you can still see it in there—which stood for the Latin “capitulum,” or “chapter.” The two lines that ended up vertically crossing the C were a sort of editorial note from the writer.

The pilcrow was used in the Middle Ages, in an earlier form, as a way of marking a new train of thought before the paragraph became the standard way of accomplishing this. Now, among its myriad uses are in academic writing (when citing from an HTML page), legal texts (when citing a specific paragraph), and in proofreading (an indication that a paragraph should be split in two).

The Ampersand—&


The ampersand is a logogram used to mean “and.” The symbol itself is based on a shorthand version of the Latin word for “and”—et—and in certain fonts, you can still clearly see an ‘e’ and a ‘t’ linked together (Adobe Caslon, for instance). The word ampersand has a somewhat unusual origin—it’s a corruption of the hard-to-parse, multilingual (English and Latin) phrase “& per se and,” which means “& by itself is ‘and.’” Confused? Don’t worry—that’s only natural. All it means is: “The symbol &, all by its little self, simply means and.” And where did this phrase come from? Well, in the early 1800s, & was considered the 27th letter of the English alphabet, and since saying “X, Y, Z, and” would be confusing, “and per se and” was said instead. It doesn’t take a major stretch of the imagination to fathom how this could quickly turn into ampersand, which it did by around 1837.

Because people like to make up urban legends based on everything, including stodgy ol’ typographical marks, there’s a vicious rumor floating around that French physicist and mathematician André-Marie Ampère used the mark so much that it eventually got called “Ampere’s and.” Don’t believe it for a second. In the end we’re left with a pretty little symbol that has more than a few variants.

Interrobang—!?, ?!, or ‽


What?! You’ve never heard of the interrobang!? Really? Well, now you have, so all is forgiven. An interrobang is described as a “nonstandard punctuation mark” (it’s part of the punctuation counterculture), used to end sentences where you really want both the exclamation point and the question mark. While the use of both marks side by side had been prevalent for some time, it wasn’t until 1962 when an advertising executive named Martin K. Speckter decided that enough was enough—no longer would he withstand the tyranny of two separate punctuation marks when one would suffice. He asked readers to suggest names—rejecting such fine ideas as rhet, exclarotive, and exclamaquest—and ultimately settled upon interrobang, a combination of the Latin root “interro” (think “interrogate”), and “bang,” which is printer’s slang for the exclamation mark. The word is used to describe both the two side by side (!? or ?!), or the combined symbol ?.

At Sign—@


What we know as @ has a lot of different monikers—including “at sign,” “at symbol,” “ampersat,” and “apetail”—but is unusual in that it doesn’t have a widely-accepted name in English. In Spanish, it is known as an arroba, and in French the arobase. @ has two primary usages—its original one, used in commerce to mean “at the rate of,” and more recently, “directed at” (primarily in email and in social media like Twitter). It has been claimed (by Italian professor Giorgio Stabile) that the symbol is actually over 500 years old, to represent an “amphora”—a unit of capacity used in commerce. It first made its way onto a typewriter as early as 1885, and has since found its way into our hearts.

A couple of fun facts:

- The Spanish arroba was a unit of weight equivalent to 25 pounds.
- The names for @ in other languages often derive from the idea that it looks like an animal. To wit: apenstaartje (Dutch for “monkey’s tail); papacy (Greek for “little duck); dalphaengi (Korean for “snail”); sobachka (Russian for “little dog”).

Guillemets—« »


Guillemets are what the French use instead of quotation marks. In addition to the physical differences, the usage differs as well—generally, guillemets open and close entire conversations or exchanges, rather than individual utterances. Amusingly, the guillemet is named after a French printer named Guillaume Le Bé from the 16th century; “Guillemet” is a diminutive of “Guillaume.” One can only assume that French people call our quotation marks “Willies,” “li’l Bills,” or “Mini Williams.”



The Obelus, more commonly known as “the division sign” for reasons I can’t fathom, comes from an Ancient Greek word for a sharpened stick or other similar pointy object. It shares its roots with the word “obelisk.” The obelus was once used to denote sections of writing that were considered incorrect or suspicious; in other words, it would have been perfect for Wikipedia editors. It was first used to mean “division” in 1659 by Swiss mathematician Johann Rahn. While still used frequently in the US and in Britain, it is not commonly used to mean division in most of the rest of the world.

Inverted ? and !—¿ and ¡

Question Mark

In Spanish, when a sentence ends with a question mark or an exclamation point, it also starts with an inverted one. ¿Porque? Well, I’ll tell you porque. In 1754, the Spanish Royal Academy decided that the Spanish language had a dire problem: when you start reading a sentence, you often have no way of telling if it’s a question or not until you get to the very end.

Consider the sentence vas a ir a la tienda? (Are you going to go to the store?). Up until you get to the question mark, you are totally in the dark—is it a question, or simply a declarative sentence stating “you are going to go to the store”? In English, we have ways of indicating that a question is coming, so that proper inflection can be used, as well as to help with comprehension. In Spanish, you used to need contextual clues to help you out before the Royal Academy had its way. They also decided that the exclamation point would be lonely, so they advocated for its inverted use as well.

Though the language was slow to adopt this new convention, it is now a fully integrated part of the language. A few interesting usage notes:

- Short, unambiguous questions are often written without the inverted mark—Quien eres?
- In digital communication, the inverted mark is frequently left off (emails, instant messaging, texts).
- Some authors refuse to use inverted marks.
- Writers can get playful with the marks, including starting a sentence with a ¡ and ending it with a ?.
- ¿ can be used in the middle of a sentence if the whole sentence is not a question, but rather the final clause.
- Note that ¿ and ¡ are positioned differently than ? and !; they hang below the line.

Ditto mark


File this under “things we use all the time but don’t know their name.” Ditto marks are those quotation-looking-guys you use to save your tired wrist from a few more seconds of writing, indicating that what’s directly above should be repeated. Though one might suspect (“one” being “me” before I researched it) that the word ditto may have been related to the Latin root “di” (meaning “two”, as in when you say “ditto” you mean “me too!”), it in fact derives from an early (c. 1620) form of the Italian word for “to say.” Originally, it was used to avoid needless repetition when writing a series of dates in the same month.

A “ditto mark” is a type of “iteration mark.” Other languages have their own, notably Chinese, Japanese, and Ancient Egyptian. It’s tough to fathom why Ancient Egyptian scribes might have needed a way to cut down on chiseling elaborate drawings into rock.

Percent Sign—%

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Take a look at the percent sign. Look at each of the three individual marks—a circle, a line, a circle. Remind you of anything? Does it, perhaps, remind you of a certain number, with the digits rearranged and realigned? A very important number? Maybe . . . the number 100?

The % sign, of course, means that the preceding number should be understood as being divided by one hundred—”per cent.” The slash mark used to be straight across, with zeroes above and beneath, but it gradually became slanted—leading to what D.E. Smith, in 1925, called the “solidus form” of the percent sign. The solidus, aka slash, virgule, fraction bar, and other names, is this sign: /.

Because there is disagreement about everything, there is disagreement over whether there should be a space between the number and the % sign, over whether it should be per cent or percent, and when you should use the % symbol and when you should instead write out the word.

Upper Case and Lower Case letters

9 29 Upper & Lower Case

Once I learned the origins of the terms “upper case” and “lower case,” it seemed so obvious. I mused: does everyone know this but me? What else are my friends and family keeping from me? Instead, though, I decided to convince myself that legions of Listversers were in the dark like me, too embarrassed to say anything. Take comfort, fellow readers, for you may remain anonymous in your ignorance.

Now then: in the early days of printing, when each letter was set individually, the letters were kept in cases. The capital letters were kept in—you guessed it—the “upper case,” less convenient to the printer because of how relatively few capital letters are used, while the lower case letters were kept in the more accessible—wait for it—”lower case.” It’s as simple as that, really. This usage of the terms dates back to 1588.

Fun facts about cases:
- The use of two cases in a written language is called “bicameral script.” Languages with only one case are called “unicase.”
- So what were lower-case letters called before they used cases at all? Well, we have other words to describe them—Upper-case letters are called majuscules (and, of course, capitals), and lower-case letters are called minuscule. Note the spelling difference with the word miniscule.

The post 10 Fascinating Typographical Origins appeared first on Listverse.

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3179 days ago
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3177 days ago
Anyone interested in this should check out http://www.shadycharacters.co.uk/
Ballard, Seattle
3177 days ago
Very cool! I'm reading about the octothorpe.
3179 days ago
I want a Punctuation Counterculture t-shirt.
Brooklyn, NY
3179 days ago
1) these are great 2) didn't everyone know about the ampersand already? #punctuationcounterculture
3179 days ago
I want to be part of the punctuation counterculture.

"The Logic of Surveillance"

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Interesting essay:

Surveillance is part of the system of control. "The more surveillance, the more control" is the majority belief amongst the ruling elites. Automated surveillance requires fewer "watchers", and since the watchers cannot watch all the surveillance, long term storage increases the ability to find some "crime" anyone is guilty of.


This is one of the biggest problems the current elites face: they want the smallest enforcer class possible, so as to spend surplus on other things. The enforcer class is also insular, primarily concerned with itself (see Dorner) and is paid in large part by practical immunity to many laws and a license to abuse ordinary people. Not being driven primarily by justice or a desire to serve the public and with a code of honor which appears to largely center around self-protection and fraternity within the enforcer class, the enforcers' reliability is in question: they are blunt tools and their fear for themselves makes them remarkably inefficient.

Surveillance expands the reach of the enforcer class and thus of the elites. Every camera, drone and so on reduces the number of eyes needed on the ground. The Stasi had millions of informers; surveillance reduces that requirement and the cost of the enforcer class.

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Nationalism on the Internet

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For technology that was supposed to ignore borders, bring the world closer together, and sidestep the influence of national governments, the Internet is fostering an awful lot of nationalism right now. We've started to see increased concern about the country of origin of IT products and services; U.S. companies are worried about hardware from China; European companies are worried about cloud services in the U.S; no one is sure whether to trust hardware and software from Israel; Russia and China might each be building their own operating systems out of concern about using foreign ones.

I see this as an effect of all the cyberwar saber-rattling that's going on right now. The major nations of the world are in the early years of a cyberwar arms race, and we're all being hurt by the collateral damage.

A commentator on Al Jareeza makes a similar point.

Our nationalist worries have recently been fueled by a media frenzy surrounding attacks from China. These attacks aren't new -- cyber-security experts have been writing about them for at least a decade, and the popular media reported about similar attacks in 2009 and again in 2010 -- and the current allegations aren't even very different than what came before. This isn't to say that the Chinese attacks aren't serious. The country's espionage campaign is sophisticated, and ongoing. And because they're in the news, people are understandably worried about them.

But it's not just China. International espionage works in both directions, and I'm sure we are giving just as good as we're getting. China is certainly worried about the U.S. Cyber Command's recent announcement that it was expanding from 900 people to almost 5,000, and the NSA's massive new data center in Utah. The U.S. even admits that it can spy on non-U.S. citizens freely.

The fact is that governments and militaries have discovered the Internet; everyone is spying on everyone else, and countries are ratcheting up offensive actions against other countries.

At the same time, many nations are demanding more control over the Internet within their own borders. They reserve the right to spy and censor, and to limit the ability of others to do the same. This idea is now being called the "cyber sovereignty movement," and gained traction at the International Telecommunications Union meeting last December in Dubai. One analyst called that meeting the "Internet Yalta," where the Internet split between liberal-democratic and authoritarian countries. I don't think he's exaggerating.

Not that this is new, either. Remember 2010, when the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and India demanded that RIM give them the ability to spy on BlackBerry PDAs within their borders? Or last year, when Syria used the Internet to surveil its dissidents? Information technology is a surprisingly powerful tool for oppression: not just surveillance, but censorship and propaganda as well. And countries are getting better at using that tool.

But remember: none of this is cyberwar. It's all espionage, something that's been going on between countries ever since countries were invented. What moves public opinion is less the facts and more the rhetoric, and the rhetoric of war is what we're hearing.

The result of all this saber-rattling is a severe loss of trust, not just amongst nation-states but between people and nation-states. We know we're nothing more than pawns in this game, and we figure we'll be better off sticking with our own country.

Unfortunately, both the reality and the rhetoric play right into the hands of the military and corporate interests that are behind the cyberwar arms race in the first place. There is an enormous amount of power at stake here: not only power within governments and militaries, but power and profit amongst the corporations that supply the tools and infrastructure for cyber-attack and cyber-defense. The more we believe we are "at war" and believe the jingoistic rhetoric, the more willing we are to give up our privacy, freedoms, and control over how the Internet is run.

Arms races are fueled by two things: ignorance and fear. We don't know the capabilities of the other side, and we fear that they are more capable than we are. So we spend more, just in case. The other side, of course, does the same. That spending will result in more cyber weapons for attack and more cyber-surveillance for defense. It will result in move government control over the protocols of the Internet, and less free-market innovation over the same. At its worst, we might be about to enter an information-age Cold War: one with more than two "superpowers." Aside from this being a bad future for the Internet, this is inherently destabilizing. It's just too easy for this amount of antagonistic power and advanced weaponry to get used: for a mistaken attribution to be reacted to with a counterattack, for a misunderstanding to become a cause for offensive action, or for a minor skirmish to escalate into a full-fledged cyberwar.

Nationalism is rife on the Internet, and it's getting worse. We need to damp down the rhetoric and-more importantly-stop believing the propaganda from those who profit from this Internet nationalism. Those who are beating the drums of cyberwar don't have the best interests of society, or the Internet, at heart.

This essay previously appeared at Technology Review.

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Ineffective Sorts

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StackSort connects to StackOverflow, searches for 'sort a list', and downloads and runs code snippets until the list is sorted.
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3183 days ago
Fast Bogosort was brilliant! :)
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3182 days ago
Zum Gröhlen!
3184 days ago
love the alt text
3186 days ago
I can't remember the last time I laughed this hard at an xkcd.
New York, NY
3186 days ago
Same here. This is brilliant.
3173 days ago
My fiancée asked me if I was feeling right. =)

How to Avoid the Emptiness of Delayed Gratification

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Photo Credit: papalars via Compfight cc

As a Chinese-American immigrant, my parents ingrained upon me the idea of sacrifice. They sacrificed so much to uproot their lives and raise me in a foreign country where they knew no one. They both worked two jobs for a long time so we could live in a town that had great public schools. If I forgot my lunch, my mom would literally drive my lunch to school to make sure I ate, so I wouldn’t would be tired and starving at gymnastics practice.

I appreciated my parent’s their dedication, but at times it wore on me. Because their sacrifice meant I, too, had to make sacrifices. There was a path I had to follow and it went something like this:

  • Because my parents sacrificed for me, I would bust my ass to get good grades and get into a good college.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would bust my ass in college to get a good job.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would bust my ass in my job to rise through the ranks and increase my salary.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would have children and bust my ass so they could have a better and brighter future than I did.

At some point I realized there didn’t seem to be a real payoff. It was some living version of MC Escher’s eternal stairs — always climbing and never reaching the top. I knew I had to get off the staircase.

Beware of the eternal staircase of delayed gratification

The ability to delay gratification is an essential willpower skill, and children who are better able to delay gratification score higher on their better on the SATs and are more socially well adjusted as teens.

But delayed gratification can go too far. Here’s a refrain that many-an-entrepreneur has said: This happens a lot to entrepreneurs:

“Once we launch our product, I’ll be able to rest and appreciate the success I’ve achieved Until then, I’m basically failing and need to bust my ass like mad.”

Once the product launches, the goal posts get moved to hiring an important team member, raising another round of financing, getting profitable, getting acquired, etc. I fell into this trap and I often see a lot of other founders do the same. And of course, this mindset This obviously applies to not just entrepreneurs but ambitious people of all stripes.

The game never ends

When discussing this topic with a friend, (specifically in regards to personal growth), he asked: “When is enough, enough?”

I’m not sure this is the right question. There will always be more work ahead. There will always be more challenges to overcome. You will never be completely satisfied (for more than a very brief period).

Living is about growing, conquering, stumbling, recovering, reflecting, learning and so on. Delayed gratification is important because most big projects require sustained commitment over a long period. But you have to learn to appreciate each and every day too.

Maybe a better question to ask would be: “How can I work towards the future while enjoying what I have?”

Moment-to-moment Happiness

It’s definitely possible to be busting your butt for a big future win, and appreciating and enjoying your life on a moment-to-moment basis. It may May not be easy, but it’s possible.

Partly inspired by my friend Kevin Gao, I startedjotting down little score cards for each day. Over time, I’ve figured out that my daily happiness is more or less governed by four things:

  • How healthy I felt (eating well, working out, feeling energized)
  • How productive I felt (getting worthwhile things done)
  • How much I got to socialize (hang out with cool people, talk to friends over Skype, spend time with my girlfriend)
  • How excited I am for tomorrow (Life is good if you’re looking forward to the next day)

Just tracking these stats makes me more cognizant of opportunities to eat healthier or see someone I like. Trends have emerged: I should to plan fun activities so I can look forward to them. These things help me be happy.

Happiness Makes You More Productive

I think that ultimately, giving yourself the space to enjoy the day to day actually allows you to work harder. I’ve sometimes seen seem my work as a burden — something I’m resentful of, because it’s the ugly crap I have to overcome to get to theperceivedgratification that lies on the other side. Thinking of work that way That attitude doesn’t make me want to keep trying work harder.

But alternatively, if I give myself a little room to read a book, work on a side project, exercise, and see friends, then I feel fresh and alive and ready to drive harder on that long-term challenge that will bring the big, distant payoff.

That’s my take — I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you deal with delayed gratification?

Related Posts:

Looking for commentary on consumer tech? Check out my Svbtle blog: Jason on Tech.
My February FitChal is Max Handstands Pushups. See how many I did: before training.
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I'm gonna call the cops and get Chad arrested for theft, then move all my stuff to the house across the street. Hopefully the owners there are more responsible.
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3268 days ago
Brooklyn, NY
3268 days ago
Now if only people understood the same about Facebook proper.
New York, NY
3268 days ago
This. Pretty much the same thing could be said about any "personal cloud" provider.
3268 days ago
Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain
3268 days ago
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