I’m 100% addicted to 99% Invisible, and only 98% sorry for this terrible pun. So, you can imagine, I rejoiced when a few days ago I noticed that their latest episode was about the interrobang.
Heads up! While this is a big article that you can read on its own, it’s actually just a transcript of the audio version of the podcast; so I deeply recommend that you listen to this in audio form. But before we get to the interrobang, Roman Mars starts by answering the million dollar question first:
“How did we get punctuation in the first place?” Well, you see:
In the beginning was the word, and the word was … well, actually, there was just one word … one long, endless word. For thousands of years, in some written languages, there was no space between words. People were expected to figure out sentences and clauses while reading aloud.
This is because early on, Scriptio Continua (continuous script) was the predominant writing style — and one without any spaces. Or punctuation. Or letter cases. As predicted, the increased use of writing demanded a more obvious and clear use of pausing and use of meaning. So, in the 3rd century BCE, a librarian in Alexandria named Aristophanes introduced the idea of putting in dots to indicate pauses, like stage directions for people performing texts out loud. Dots of ink at the bottom, middle, or top of a given line served as subordinate, intermediate and full points, corresponding to pauses of increasing length.
And this idea became, slowly, the basis for modern punctuation. Fast-forward a little bit, and let’s arrive in the previous century, a time when some people felt like there was still space to inject new punctuation into the system. Enter, the interrobang ‽
It was created by an ad man named Martin Speckter just over a half-century ago. In the 1950s and 60s, he repped some of the biggest names in publishing, such as Barron’s, Dow Jones, and the Wall Street Journal. Speckter was also a typography nerd, constantly reading books on punctuation and the English language.
In the spring of 1962, Speckter was thinking about advertising when he realized something: many ads asked questions, but not just any questions — excited and exclamatory questions — a trend not unique to his time. Got milk?! Where’s the beef?! Can you hear me now?! So he asked himself: could there be a mark that made it clear (visually on a page) that something is both a question and an exclamation?!
It was both surprise and exclamation. Don’t you know what an interrobang is‽
The idea gained traction really fast — and in fact, some modern typefaces actually include their own variation of the interrobang. Even typefaces from the 70s, before the digital era, have developed metal casts for this quirky character.
But, as punctuation expert Keith Houston explains, “it’s not easy to invent a mark of punctuation that actually sticks.” Houston loves the interrobang, but notes that history is littered with failed attempts to create new end marks. “Around the 16th century,” for instance, “the percontation mark, this rhetorical question mark, lasted about fifty years before it disappeared.
There’s so much to learn on this delightful episode of 99% PI, that’s almost unfair that I’m even trying to condense the article. On a similar note, a while ago they also ran an episode on the Octothorpe
(yes, the hashtag), that you might also not want to miss. For dear life.