Sunday, 29 September 2013

hunting of the snark


From antiquity through the Renaissance, most productions and publications were content to rely on the intellect of the audiences to discern satire and irony, but with the decentralisation of governments and the displacement of the Lingua franca of the Renaissance, which saw the rise, through printing of native languages, many authors feared that their sense might be lost, especially in translation. Hence, many thinkers attempted to independently espouse a new series of punctuation marks over the years to denote something meant to be ironic or tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes variations on the exclamation mark were employed or an opening and closing quote with a glyph like the the Greek letter psy (Ψ), maybe in deference to the eirôn, a stock character of Ancient Greek comedies who through understatement and sometimes self-depreciation, usually triumphed over the braggarts in the end. Such flags were thought to be important, especially in dicey diplomatic situations, were it became important to maer distinctions between what was spoken ex cathedra and what was the modest proposals of uncredentialed journalists and opiners.
The perennial failure of this sort of mark-up language—though maybe its time have come with shouts and murmurs and snarky comments regularly framed by inventive interjections, sort of reminds me of the struggle to introduce the metric system to the hold-outs, which always seems to fail as well but for interesting reasons and in spectacular ways, is just one of several typographical adventures explored in the new work, Shady Characters: the Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols and other Typographical Marks, by Keith Houston, showing that the stories behind those oddities that never managed to catch on are as fascinating and perhaps as influential as those that did endure—or linger in ways much changed from their original purpose.