The names of punctuation marks
Chances are that you use them every day – from ‘ to # and ? to . – but where did common punctuation marks get their names?
The ampersand is the sign &, used to mean ‘and’. The shape of the symbol originated as a ligature for the Latin et (‘and’) – that is, it represents the merged ‘e’ and ‘t’. The name ampersand also represents a merge, although one that is perhaps more accidental.
When reciting the alphabet, letters that were also entire words in and of themselves (such as a and I) could once be read as ‘a per se a’, ‘i per se I’, to make it clear that a word was intended, rather than a single letter. Per se is the Latin for ‘by itself’, so the & symbol, which was traditionally included at the end of the alphabet, was originally chanted as ‘and per se and’ (that is, ‘& by itself is and’). Over time, this was altered into the single word ampersand, and the original phrase was largely forgotten.
Use of the apostrophe (‘) can be a bit of a minefield (our handy hints will help you work them out), and you might experience an ironic wish to turn away from them. Why ironic? Because apostrophe actually comes from a word meaning ‘turn away’: the Greek apostrephein, from apo ‘from’ + strephein ‘to turn’. This is the root of the Greek apostrophos, meaning ‘accent of elision’, which is precisely one of the functions of the apostrophe – that is, it is used to indicate ‘the omission of a sound or syllable when speaking’.
Incidentally, an apostrophe is also ‘an exclamatory passage in a speech or poem addressed to a person (typically one who is dead or absent) or thing (typically one that is personified)’. Again, the route is apostrephein, as the speaker is turning away from the audience or reader to address a third party.
The hyphen (-) is used to join words together, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that the word hyphen comes from the Greek for ‘together’ (hyphen). This, in turn, comes from hypo ‘under’ + hen ‘one’. The hyphen is not the only punctuation mark that signifies togetherness; the plus symbol (+) has also been referred to as a hyphen on rare occasions, as has a short pause between two syllables in speaking and, more broadly, any small connecting link.
Speaking of words with more than one meaning, you may be familiar with the colon as a symbol (:) and (less suitable for dinnertime conversation) the main part of the large intestine. These actually derive from slightly different Greek words. The anatomical feature is from κόλον (i.e. kŏlon), meaning ‘food’, ‘meat’, or (indeed) ‘the colon’. The word for the punctuation mark, on the other hand, comes from κῶλον (or kōlon), which means ‘limb’ or ‘clause’ – and it is used because one of the main functions of the colon is to separate two clauses, where the second clause explains or follows from the first.
Commonly known as brackets (particularly in British English), parentheses are those symbols used earlier in this sentence: the round brackets ( and ). Since the mid 16th century, parenthesis and parentheses have been used to mean ‘a word, clause, or sentence inserted as an explanation, aside, or afterthought into a passage with which it has not necessarily any grammatical connection’ (and, more generally, an afterthought or explanatory aside). The use of the term to refer to the round brackets themselves followed later, although only by a few decades, according to current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) research. The word itself ultimately comes from the Greek parentithenai, meaning ‘put in beside’.
This symbol has become very familiar, as (of course) every email address requires one. I have used the symbol itself for this paragraph’s heading, as the only name by which is it commonly known in English is at (or at symbol, at sign, etc.). Its technological lease of life was not its genesis, though; @ originated as a scribe’s quick way of writing the Latin word ad, meaning ‘at’, especially in lists of prices of commodities. It is still used in accounting and invoicing to signify ‘at the rate of’ (15 tables @ £35 = £525, for example), as well as various computer programming languages.
While no other name for the symbol has secured wide use in English, various other languages have given names or nicknames to @. Many of these relate to the shape of the sign: a selection includes aapstert (Afrikaans, ‘monkey tail’), kukac (Hungarian, ‘worm’ or ‘maggot’), and malwen (Welsh, ‘snail’), although at is becoming more common as a universal name.
Even if you don’t think you know what an octothorp (or octothorpe) is, you’ll definitely recognize it; it’s another name for this symbol: #. Most commonly known as a hash (probably from hatch, meaning ‘shade an area with closely drawn parallel lines’, altered by folk etymology), # is also known as the pound sign or the number sign in American English, used to prefix weights or numbers. The symbol has come to prominence in recent years due to its use on Twitter and other social media to identify messages on a specific topic; the word or phrase preceded by the hash sign is known as a hashtag, and the sign itself is increasingly also known by this name.
So, what of octothorp? The picturesque name is said to have been invented by Don Macpherson, an employee of Bell Laboratories in the 1960s, in honour of the American athlete Jim Thorpe, with the octo- part deriving from the symbol’s eight points. Another theory for the thorp section of octothorp was printed by New Scientist in 1996: ‘thorp was an Old English word for village: apparently the sign was playfully construed as eight fields surrounding a village’.