The Story of Symbols

27 May 2012

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We use them every day – but what are the mysterious origins of these symbols we take for granted? 

 Here are few short explanations to demystify the meanings of our favorite symbols.


The Question Mark
Once upon a time, there was no such thing as a question mark. To show that a question was being asked, the word question would be written. In Latin - quaesto. The reason that it was in Latin was because that was the universal scholastic language of the time. However, paper was not cheap and so to allow space to be saved, it was over time shortened to qo. That eventually posed another problem – qo could be confused for the ending of another word rather than an indication that a question was being posed. So, the q was placed on top of the o. Again, this had the added benefit of saving space. What happened next was that the q turned in to a squiggle and the o became a dot. What do you get then? Exactly! Here is the evolution.


The Exclamation Point
The exclamation point (or mark) has a similar history to that of the question mark. An exclamation point is used to give a certain punch to a sentence – and is used most injudiciously in a million text messages a day. Originally, an exclamation was represented by the Latin word io. This literally means “exclamation of joy” and is short itself for iocundia or iocundum. Once again, over time, the i was placed above the o. So the mark that we use and abuse so often (an overuse for which it was not – and is not – intended) is descended from a Latinate “yeeeees!” Goal!

The Equals Sign
Robert Recorde was an English mathematician of the sixteenth century. He needed that little extra something for his calculations. These are his actual musings: “I will settle as I doe often in woorke use, a paire parallels, lines of one length bicause noe two thynges can be more equalle”. Here I must point out that Recorde was not dyslexic. This was written before Shakespeare started scribbling and of course there was no standard spelling or indeed a dictionary, at the time. Basically what he was saying was that two parallel lines were a great choice to stand for the word equals as what can be more equal than that? The equal sign we know is about five times shorter than Recorde’s but after a hundred years or so it became generally accepted. It replaced a symbol created by Descartes which was a wormy squiggle.

The Ampersand
The ampersand began life as a highly stylized version of the Latin for “and” which was Et. These Romans have a lot to answer for! It was invented by Marcus Tullius Tiro. He was a slave (later freed) of Cicero (you can even see him in the flesh, as it were, in the fairly recent HBO series, Rome). He didn’t, however, give the sign its peculiar name – that came much later when it was considered pretty much the twenty seventh letter of the alphabet. School children in the reign of Queen Victoria would chant their alphabet while learning it by rote. As this symbol had no name they would end their chant with the words “and, per se”. This means “and, which means itself”. Crafty lot these Victorians. Children being children, “and per se” became garbled in their rush to finish their recitation of the alphabet – and one version eventually caught on and was ultimately formalized as the right and proper name for &.

The Octothorp
We know it as the hash sign but the real name is octothorp. Those aware of the aquatic creature with eight legs will know that the first two syllable means “eight” which if you add the points up, certainly does add up! The “Thorpe” part of the word comes from a word which means farm in the ancient language Old Norse. Traditionally a village would have eight fields surrounding it making up a farm. Get it? We use it for numbering but the original use of the symbol would be to indicate a village on a map. No need to talk about Twitter here, surely?

The Dollar
1794 was a great year for the fledgling United States of America. Until that year the country had no currency of its own. At the time the most powerful country in the world financially was Spain – and the peso was what could be described as the global currency of the day. The first silver dollars of the US were, in terms of their weight and what they were worth, identical to the peso. The written abbreviation for peso was Ps. Then evolution took hold! The S was eventually written on top of the P. This was untidy and people are lazy so more and more of them stopped drawing the circular bit of the P when expressing their currency as a symbol. That left the good people of the United States with the letter S with a single line through it - $.

The Pound
The pound sign is, put simply, the letter L. It is written is roundhand, so to the owners of modern eyes (who do not have handwriting taught in school so much as previous generations) it does not immediately look like an L. The cross bar that is used (occasionally two) is there to show it is an abbreviation. There was a Roman unit of weight called the “libra” and this is where we get the letter L from in the symbol. This L is also the culprit in the abbreviation for a pound as in a unit of weight – lb.

The At Sign
The @ sign made its first appearance on a keyboard in 1896 and took less then a hundred years for its meaning to diversify to the extent that the majority recognize it for its more recent denotation. There is no definite origin of the @ sign – but there are plenty of theories! The symbol, which before the internet age meant at the rate of (i.e. 20 apples at the rate of 5c = $1) could well be a shortening of the words each at – so that you could get 20 apples for a dollar, each at 5c. It could be those medieval monks at it again – reducing space waste on that expensive papyrus. It could even be an abbreviation of abbreviation of the Spanish word arroba, a unit of weight equivalent to 25 pounds, and derived from the Arabic expression of "a quarter".

However, its traditional usage was superseded in the 1990s when the symbol was adopted to indicate the location of an email address at a particular domain (or indeed to indicate direction). Programmers also use it in various languages but its use is inconsistent to say the least.

So at became, well, at – and as such is the only one of our symbols to radically change its meaning to a majority of people while remaining intact.

The Asterisk
The asterisk is one of two notae (the other being the obelus in the appearance of the crux †) that have survived intact and in their original form since the Middle Ages. Ask someone from Athens what it means and they will tell you it comes from the Greek word asteri, which means star. No surprises why the asterisk is star shaped, then. The asterisk appears at times in early medieval manuscripts, but with less regularity later, to link passages in the text with side-notes and footnotes. In printed books, it appears with its original purpose, to mark omissions, but positioned within the text.

It came back to the big time in the twentieth century. Yet its meaning to us now has altered somewhat along with, on many occasions, its name. As well as linking passages the asterisk is often used to represent missing letters, most often from expletives. If you don’t give a f**k but do not want to give too much offense, then you will use an asterisk (or two). Plus, it has an abundance of uses in IT. Computer scientists use the asterisk in regular expressions to denote zero and it is used in command line interfaces as a wildcard. If you use Excel or any number of programming languages then you will use it to multiply: 4*4 is 16 and so on.  The list could go on. However, you will probably call it star rather than asterisk for all of the above.


First Image Flickr User Horia Varlan



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