In the 1930s and ’40s, fans of the burgeoning science-fiction genre discussed their favourite books, stories, and authors in homemade fan magazines – ‘fanzines’, or ’zines for short. Written on typewriters and copied using simple printing presses called mimeographs, the letters and stories published in each ’zine were couched in a sci-fi jargon all their own. ‘Jophan’ was the ’zines’ equivalent of ‘John Doe’; the plural of ‘fan’ was not ‘fans’ but ‘fen’; a grotesque alien was a ‘BEM’, or bug-eyed monster. But the writers and readers of these sci-fi ’zines went further than inventing words: they invented a punctuation mark too.
The quasiquote was the 20th Century’s first new punctuation mark
First recorded in the early 1940s, the so-called ‘quasiquote’ was made by typing a quotation mark (″), backspacing by a single character, and then typing a hyphen (-) over it. Quasiquotes were used when an original quotation was too long or too confusing to reproduce in full: they were paraphrasing marks, in effect, with an implied meaning of ‘or words to that effect’. And though the quasiquote stayed firmly within the closeted world of the fanzine, it was still the 20th Century’s first new punctuation mark. Nor was it the last: since then, a succession of writers, inventors, and other hopefuls have created their own new marks of punctuation, each one hoping that theirs will be the one to finally succeed.
The next new symbol did not arrive until 1962, when a Madison Avenue executive named Martin K Speckter wrote a magazine article in which he proposed combining the question and exclamation marks to create a new symbol – ‽ – that he called the ‘interrobang’. To introduce his new mark, Speckter explained that Christopher Columbus must have been both excited and doubtful when he first sighted the Americas. Did he shout “Land, ho!” or “Land, ho?” – or was it some combination of the two? The interrobang, Speckter wrote, was the perfect way to capture the ambiguity. The Wall Street Journal had a pithier example: “Who forgot to put gas in the car‽” Speckter explained that the symbol’s evocative name came from the Latin interrogatio, or ‘questioning’, and the word ‘bang’, a printers’ nickname for the exclamation mark.
As a canny advertising executive, Speckter was happy to give interviews about the interrobang on television and in print, and his creation soon took on a life of its own. In 1966, a type designer called Richard Isbell added an interrobang to a typeface called Americana; a year later, the typewriter company Remington Rand released a replacement key bearing an interrobang after one of its designers saw Isbell’s version of the mark in a brochure. Interrobangs appeared in book titles, magazine articles, and in ’zines too, where writers typed them by striking ‘?’, backspace, then ‘!’.
Out with a bang
And then, nothing. Within a decade of Speckter’s magazine article, the interrobang was almost nowhere to be seen. Books, magazines and newspapers in those days were typeset using mechanical devices that supported only a limited number of symbols, and the interrobang never quite managed to find a permanent place among more conventional commas, dashes, and full stops. Writers could type interrobangs but printers could not print them, and the interrobang’s days were numbered.
A handful of years after Martin Speckter created the interrobang, and while the ad man’s mark was still riding high in the press, a French writer named Hervé Bazin was next to try his hand at creating a homemade punctuation mark. Bazin was a respected author in France, known for gritty domestic dramas, but his 1966 book Plumons l’Oiseau (Let’s Pluck the Bird) was more light-hearted. In it, Bazin examined the use and reform of the French language from the point of view of a fictitious professor named Alexis Patagos.
Today the love point, irony point and the rest are all little more than curiosities
Among Patagos’s imagined innovations were six new marks of punctuation standing for love, acclamation, certainty, doubt, authority and irony. Like the quasiquote and the interrobang, Bazin designed his new marks to mimic existing symbols: his ‘love point’, for example, was created from two opposed question marks resembling a heart; his ‘acclamation point’ was two exclamation marks sharing a dot, like a pair of upraised arms; and his ‘certainty point’ was an exclamation mark crossed by an extra horizontal stroke so that it resembled a cross.
But Bazin’s creations were doomed to fail from the start. Though his new symbols looked familiar, crucially, they were impossible to type on a typewriter. The author himself never used them after Plumons l’Oiseau and the book’s playful tone discouraged other writers from taking them up too, so that today the love point, irony point, and the rest are little more than curiosities. Perhaps other would-be innovators took note, because the search for new marks of punctuation entered a fallow period of almost 30 years.
Isn’t it ironic?
In 1992, however, invented punctuation came back in a big way. That year, three inventors filed a patent with the Canadian Intellectual Property Office entitled Two New Punctuation Marks: The Question Comma and the Exclamation Comma. Their patent was short and to the point: Leonard Storch and his co-inventors explained that they had replaced the dots at the bottom of the question mark and the exclamation mark with commas, so that each clause in a sentence could be made to be questioning or exclamatory, or even, with their ‘interrobang comma’, both at once. The idea, Storch said, had come to him in a dream – and it was the kind of dream that was worth protecting.
Three years later, Storch was evidently less convinced. The patent lapsed. Even so, the exclamation comma and question comma were the first new marks of punctuation to be created in the era of the desktop computer: for the first time, any sufficiently determined inventor could both design a new mark of punctuation and create a font to display it on screen or in print. Even more importantly, the arrival of the internet meant that inventors could publicise their marks more easily than ever before.
In the early 2000s almost every new mark was targeted at irony or sarcasm
Accordingly, in the early 2000s, the floodgates opened – and, in keeping with the snarky tone of the much of the internet’s discourse, almost every new mark was targeted at irony or sarcasm. In 2001, a blogger named Tara Liloia wrote that sarcastic sentences should be ended with a tilde (~); three years later, Josh Greenman of Slate suggested using an inverted exclamation mark (¡) for the same purpose; and in 2007, a Dutch type designer called Bas Jacobs designed an elegant, zig-zag exclamation mark called the ironieteken or ‘irony mark’. But all these pale into insignificance compared to the so-called SarcMark™, a sarcasm mark so serious that it bears the trademark sign.
The SarcMark, resembling the digit ‘6’ with a dot in the middle, was launched in January 2010 by a father-and-son team from Michigan named Paul and Doug Sak. Sarcasm Inc, as they called their joint venture, created a wave of publicity across social and mainstream media: the pair commissioned a video commercial featuring a superhero with a SarcMark emblazoned on his chest, and, just as Martin K Speckter had done back in 1962, the Saks gave a series of television and print interviews to promote their invention. Unlike Speckter, however, they trademarked their symbol and charged for digital fonts that let writers include it in their documents. None of this came cheap; in 2012 Doug Sak told the Wall Street Journal that the SarcMark project was already a decade old and had cost him almost $100,000 (£65,000). “I'm not saving the world but it does have real relevance,” he said.
Unfortunately for the Saks, the world at large seems to disagree. The SarcMark has suffered the same gradual slide into obscurity that eventually claimed each of its predecessors. Even the interrobang, a favourite of punctuation aficionados and which survives today as part of Unicode, the standard computer character set, is rarely seen in print or online. As difficult as it can be sometimes to use our existing marks of punctuation correctly, it is an even harder job to add a new mark to their ranks.
Keith Houston is the author of Shady Characters, The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. More of his work can be found here.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.