What’s an interrobang‽
In the beginning of the written word, there was no space between words in some languages. You were just expected to know when to pause. Scriptio Continua was the common form of writing in Classical Greek and Classical Latin which lacked letter spaces, punctuation, or letter cases.¹
In the 3rd century BCE, a librarian in Alexandria named Aristophanes introduced dots to indicate pauses, like directions for people reading text aloud. Dots that were inserted at the bottom, middle, or top of a line indicated subordinate, intermediate, and full points which corresponded to pauses of increasing length. Aristophanes’ system became the basis for Western punctuation. A partial thought — followed by the shortest pause — was called a komma. A fuller thought was called a kolon. And a complete thought — followed by the longest pause — was called a periodos.² ³ 4 These units later came to be known commonly as the comma, colon, and period.
Medieval scribes allegedly created the early exclamation mark. Alcuin of York, an 8th century English scholar, introduced the symbol that would later become the modern day question mark.5 Since then, all (latin) sentences have ended with one of these three “End Marks:” a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point. The people were happy with this and no one questioned it for a very long time.
There have been many failed attempts to add to these three typographical pillars. This brings us to the Interrobang(‽), the first new punctuation mark in 300 years. It was created in 1962 by advertising executive, Martin Speckter. His clients included some of the biggest names in publishing, including Barron’s, Dow Jones News, and the Wall Street Journal. He was also a big typography enthusiast and editor of the typography magazine TYPEtalks.
This was a time in advertising that began the era of big questions. Got milk?! Where’s the beef?! Can you hear me now?! Do you Yahoo!? Wassup?! Speckter wanted to find a typographic solution that clearly defined an idea that was an exclamatory question. He first proposed the radical idea in his Typetalks article, “Making a New Point, Or How About That.” His mark denoted a question that expressed surprise, or a rhetorical question which was often incredulous. He had several potential ideas but he focused on combining the two punctuations into a single useful glyph. It was a more efficient and expressive mark instead of the placement of a question mark with an adjacent exclamation point.
Of course, the name had to be catchy too. It was a combination or words — “interro” for interrogate and “bang” which is the proofreader’s word for the exclamation point. Readers of the article also submitted ideas for alternate names, including “emphaquest,” “interropoint” and “exclarogative”, but he stuck with the original.
It’s easy to invent new punctuation: the hard part is making it stick. From the outset it had a hard time getting recognition. An article was published in the New York Herald Tribune praising the mark in 1962. But it happened to be published on April 1st so readers may have thought it was an April Fool’s joke. In 1966 the legendary type foundry American Type Founders created a new typeface called Americana, designed by Richard Isbell that included the Interrobang, but the company was in decline and Americana was the last type typeface they ever cut. Later, in 1968, the typewriter company Remington announced that their new model typewriter would feature an optional Intrerrobang key. But, the optional key cost extra money which failed to catch on.
It has made it into the dictionary and, so far, has been included in the Unicode index, the universal directory of symbols which all computer fonts must reference. Some of the most common fonts such as Helvetica, Arial, and Wingdings, also include an Interrobang symbol, but it is usually buried deep within a Glyph library. It has made a small resurgence in today’s internet culture mainly as a kitsch symbol, mostly being used as self-referential.
The Interrobang is the perfect balance of excitement, outrage, and incredulity. Twitter would be an excellent home for its use given the limited character count. It is needed today more than ever in social media where there is an egregious use of redundant punctuation and CAPS!!! It’s never been easier to use Unicode symbols online today with a simple copy/paste. We finally have the solution to properly emphasize sarcasm in a text message. But there are also Emojis to compete with now, cute yellow faces that express many desired emotions like the side glance/smirk or even a smiling poo.
The Interrobang was way ahead of its time. It still has the biggest hurdle to clear, that of banality. Punctuation expert, Keith Houston points out: “I think that in order to really consider it to be a real mark of punctuation, people have to use it without thinking about it.” The Interrobang was not meant to be subtle, which is perhaps why it has struggled to gain traction in modern language. It circles back to a core concept we would do well to consider: the greatest design is seamlessly incorporated to everyday use, making life easier and more efficient.
This is the case I am making for the Interrobang. To reduce typographic redundancies and misunderstood text. To truly make your point you must make a statement. The Interrrobang is just that. If we can make it part of our everyday language then it will finally shed itself of kitschiness and become a member of the English language. I urge you to make that bold statement. Who’s with me‽
1 E. Otha Wingo. (1972). Latin punctuation in the classical age. The Hague: Mouton.
2 Reading Before Punctuation Archived September 2, 2006, at the Wayback Machine. — Introduction to Latin Literature handout, Haverford College
3 A History Of Punctuation
4 Bliss, Robert. “Points to Ponder”. Software Technology Support Center. Archived from the original on 28 November 2002. Retrieved 18 April 2013.
This story was an adaption: Rosenberg, Joe (2018, July, 07) Interrobang. https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/interrobang/