Keith Houston – Shady Characters

I’ve been enjoying Keith Houston’s Shady Characters blog for quite some time now. It’s a fascinating and quite deep delve into the origins and development of punctuation marks, from the familiar to the more obscure, and always entertaining.

So I had no hesitation in ordering his book of the same name. Now I usually prefer Kindle versions, but for this I was happy to make an exception. It’s a nicely bound hardback, printed on remarkably bright white paper, with all the interesting punctuation marks picked out in red, such as ‽ (the delightful interrobang) not to mention (the pilcrow, recognised as the paragraph mark in most word-processing programs) and ☞ (the manicule, a handy thing for marking important text).

The book is filled with quotations, images of old documents, and has enough footnotes and references to satisfy anyone interested in punctuation. And maybe to draw in people who’d never really given the subject much thought.

My only negative point is that Keith has adopted the not entirely serious, but still annoying name octothorpe for the # hash sign (or “pound sign” as some confusingly call it[1]).

Worth a read in either paper form, or on a colour tablet. You’d miss a lot on a standard Kindle.

[1] There are a few reasons why people on this side of the pond find that confusing. The obvious one is that a pound sign actually looks like this: £. Another is that we use “lb” to denote pounds in weight, which would appear to be where the symbol used in the US came from. First, the lb was written with a bar across it to indicate it was a measurement (much like the £ is a letter L with a bar), and this gradually became standardised as a symbol. But the most interesting one is that back in the Olden Days of dot matrix printers and small character sets, getting generally US-developed software to print a £ more often than not produced a # unless you fiddled with dip switches, performed arcane software rituals or generally went to a lot of trouble. And even then it didn’t always work. And of course, if you’d done all that and then needed to print a #, you were knackered…

3 thoughts on “Keith Houston – Shady Characters

  1. Keith Houston

    Hi Les — thanks for the review, and I’m glad you enjoyed the book. The focus on the word “octothorpe” for ‘#’ was, of course, chiefly down to the stories it let me tell!

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