Wednesday 18 November 2020

twinkle, twinkle

We are treated to an albeit abridged but nonetheless thoroughgoing history of the asterisk from Keith Houston’s Shady Characters, beginning with a frustrated librarian of Alexandria called Zenodotus who was determined to make a version of the epics of Homer as close to their original form as possible before centuries of editing, commentary and poetic license had turned the text into the unruly document that Zenodotus and colleagues were now heir to. In order to pare down the Iliad and the Odyssey, Zenodotus devised tracked-changes and version control, first introducing a range of proofreading or editor’s marks, to begin with a dash (—) in the margins to indicate a line to be excised, later named the obelos—that is, a roasting-spit. 

Having left us the literary legacy of dividing the poems into books, glosses of unusual words, a form of labelling and alphabetical indexing so scrolls did not need enrolling to know the contents, many duplicate verses obelised and a calculation of the time that passes in the course of the war and homecoming, a century later, grammarian Aristarchus of Samothrace took up the mantle of Homeric scholarship and stewardship and expanded the vocabulary of the critical symbols, with his asteriskos—little star and not to be confused with the asterism, to signal duplicate lines or something appearing elsewhere. With the conditional, footnoted sense developing over the millennia, the subtext was that for a a line with an * attached, there was more to the story. Other marks in the system which also indicated punctuation, breath and pronunciation, the sigma and antisigma (ฯน, ฯฝ) for what’s interchangeable, a dotted diple (>·) or an asteriskos/obelos combination to indicate an editorial disagreement and spurious authenticity. Our comic Gallic heroes are of course named in reference to these annotations. Much more to explore at the link up top.