Miscellany № 80: irony archaeology

In the wake of my last post (Miscellany № 79: jè?), I was doing a bit of digging into the history of emoticons — those recumbent smileys used to signify happiness (:)), sadness (:(), mehness (:|) and so on — when I came across Scott Fahlman’s personal website. Fahlman is the man famous for inventing the emoticon and, although I’ve written about him before, both here and in the Shady Characters book, in both cases I skated over the exact circumstances of his invention because, well, I didn’t know what they were. Having found his webpage at Carnegie Mellon University, however, I now find that the whole story has been there for the reading for a decade or more!

Fahlman writes that the creation of :-) and :-( came about late in 1982 on a bulletin board run by Carnegie Mellon’s Computer Science department. Thanks to some digital archaeology on the part of Fahlman’s colleagues, the thread leading up to that fateful moment can be read in full at his CMU faculty webpage. We jump into the story in September 1982 with a bulletin board message in which CMUer Neil Swartz posed a physics brainteaser for his colleagues:

16-Sep-82 12:09    Neil Swartz at CMU-750R      Pigeon type question
This question does not involve pigeons, but is similar:
There is a lit candle in an elevator mounted on a bracket attached to the middle of one wall (say, 2" from the wall).  A drop of mercury is on the floor.  The cable snaps and the elevator falls. What happens to the candle and the mercury?

Howard Gayle responded a few hours later — not to answer the question, but to make a deadpan joke about it:

16-Sep-82 17:21    Howard Gayle at CMU-780G     WARNING!
Because of a recent physics experiment, the leftmost elevator has been contaminated with mercury.  There is also some slight fire damage. Decontamination should be complete by 08:00 Friday.

Not everyone saw the funny side. One Rudy Nedved complained that a mercury spill is no laughing matter:

16-Sep-82 21:34    Rudy Nedved at CMU-10A       Re: WARNING!!
The previous bboard message [by Howard Gayle] about mercury is related to the comment by Neil Swartz about Physics experiments. It is not an actual problem.
Last year parts of Doherty Hall were closed off because of spilled mercury. My high school closed down a lab because of a dropped bottle of mercury.
My apology for spoiling the joke but people were upset and yelling fire in a crowded theatre is bad news....so are jokes on day old comments.

Swartz, the original poster, weighed in the next day to clear things up, in a tone of voice so studiedly innocent that I can’t help but wonder if he secretly took Gayle’s side in the matter. Take special note of his second paragraph:

17-Sep-82 10:58    Neil Swartz at CMU-750R      Elevator posts
Apparently there has been some confusion about elevators and such.  After talking to Rudy, I have discovered that there is no mercury spill in any of the Wean hall elevators.  Many people seem to have taken the notice about the physics department seriously.
Maybe we should adopt a convention of putting a star (*) in the subject field of any notice which is to be taken as a joke.

Isn’t that interesting? The idea of using the asterisk as a sarcasm mark isn’t a new one (I covered Michele Buchanan’s similar proposal here at Shady Characters back in 2014, for instance), but Swartz’s suggestion may be the earliest one I’ve come across yet.

The denizens of the Carnegie Mellon message board did not stop with an asterisk. Swartz’s colleagues joined the conversation with a host of suggestions — all tongue in cheek, naturally:

17-Sep-82 14:59    Joseph Ginder at CMU-10A     (*%)
I believe that the joke character should be % rather than *.
17-Sep-82 15:15    Anthony Stentz at CMU-780G   (*%)
How about using * for good jokes and % for bad jokes? We could even use *% for jokes that are so bad, they're funny.
17-Sep-82 17:40    Keith Wright at CMU-10A      *%$ Jokes!
No, no, no!  Surely everyone will agree that "&" is the funniest character on the keyboard.  It looks funny (like a jolly fat man in convulsions of laughter).  It sounds funny (say it loud and fast three times).  I just know if I could get my nose into the vacuum of the CRT it would even smell funny!

…and so on and so forth. Three days after Neil Swartz’s original post, Scott Fahlman took to his keyboard to make his own proposal:

19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman             :-)
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:

Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.  For this, use


And so history was made. Fahlman himself says that his suggestion was a casual one, dashed off in a hurry (he notes that his post is missing a few words, for instance), but despite this, :-) and :-( quickly spread beyond his host institution. In November of the same year, for example, one James Morris at CMU forwarded an expanded list of smileys to a correspondent at Xerox’ famed Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC. As Morris wrote:

Recently, Scott Fahlman at CMU devised a scheme for annotating one's messages to overcome this problem.  If you turn your head sideways to look at the three characters :-) they look sort of like a smiling face.  Thus, if someone sends you a message that says "Have you stopped beating your wife?:-)" you know they are joking. [...] Since Scott's original proposal, many further symbols have been proposed here:

(:-) for messages dealing with bicycle helmets
@= for messages dealing with nuclear war
<:-) for dumb questions
oo for somebody's head-lights are on messages
o>-<|= for messages of interest to women
~= a candle, to annotate flaming messages

Given the eye-opening sexism in his message (“o>-<|= for messages of interest to women”; a crack about wife-beating — really?), perhaps Morris should have added a ~= to its title. Regardless: the smiley was born, and it was fruitful. It continues to live on today, both in its original text form and transmuted into emoji, as “☺️”, “😃”, and many others. Not bad for a hastily-written message on a long-lost bulletin board.

Oh, and if you were wondering what happens to the candle and the mercury when the lift drops, head over to Scott Fahlman’s page to find out.

The Book at the British Library on Monday 3rd July

A quick reminder today that I’ll be giving a talk at the British Library on Monday 3rd July (just over a week to go!), and that tickets are now on general release. It’d be great to see some Shady Characters readers there — if you do come along, please don’t hesitate to say hello!

If you’re interested in learning a little more about The Book in advance of the talk, you might want to check out this recent interview I did with Jakub Nowak, available in both the original English and Jakub’s Polish translation. Jakub has previously reviewed The Book, and it was fun to dig into some of the background behind it with him.

A couple of other things while I’m here!

The British Museum holds a copy of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut print of Triumphal Arch of Emperor Maximilian, one of the largest such prints ever completed. I wrote a little about it in The Book, and so I was intrigued to see that the museum recently restored their copy and documented the process as they did so. There’s an informative video here about it — well worth a watch.

Secondly, Sander Neijnens’ ironical jè-mark, as documented here, continues its attempt to break into the pantheon of shady characters. You can now order a jè-mark T-shirt by emailing info@tilburgsans.nl — although Tilburg cit­izen Hetty van de Vor­sten­bosch has already gone one better and had a jè-mark tattooed onto her ankle. You can watch her story here.

That’s it for now. I look forward to seeing you at the British Library next Monday!

The photograph featured above was taken at the British Library by Steve Cadman.

Miscellany № 79: jè?

Always nice to ease oneself back into the swing of things with a new mark of punctuation, don’t you think? I was pleased to come across the following announcement a little while ago:

On May 27, at the international design conference TYPO Berlin two new typefaces will be launched that are designed as part of the TilburgsAns project. Both typefaces – TilburgsAnsText and TilburgsAnsIcons – contain a new punctuation mark. This mark is based on the Tilburg dialect word ‘jè’ (which sounds more or less as ‘yeah’) that is used as a confirmation but often expresses some doubt or mild irony. The jè-mark bridges the gap between the exclamation point and the question mark.

And what does this new mark look like? It looks like this:

A sample of TilburgsAns
A 36-pt sample of Sander Neijnens’ TilburgsSans, featuring the “jè” mark used to convey irony or doubt. A Dutch interrobang! (Typeface courtesy of Sander Neijnens.)

Let’s backtrack a bit. The TilburgsAns project is the brainchild of Sander Neijnens, a typographer, and Ivo van Leeuwen, a graphic designer, both of whom live in the Dutch town of Tilburg. In 2016 the pair released a typeface called TilburgsAns* inspired by and intended to promote their home town. Their typeface was joined by a set of icons depicting Tilburg landmarks and also by an intriguing new mark of punctuation: the “jè” symbol described above. As Sander explains, it is intended to convey a sort of typographical shrug: somewhere between “oh yeah?” and “really?”.

Of course, there have been many attempts to create and promote new irony and sarcasm marks, as documented here over the years. There was the reversed question mark (⸮) of the sixteenth century and the inverted exclamation mark (¡) of the seventeenth; Martin K Speckter’s interrobang (‽), invented in the 1960s; the tilde (~), proposed in the early 2000s; and the asterisk (*), a more recent entrant. And then there is my personal favourite, the ironieteken as designed by Bas Jacobs (), and which is now available in the Satyr typeface in which this site is set.

It’s too early to say how well the jè-mark will fare in comparison to its predecessors, but I was interested to learn more nevertheless. Last week I spoke to Sander Neijnens via email about his new mark of punctuation and about TilburgsAns in general and so, without further ado, here is the genesis of the jè-mark in the words of its creator.

KH: How did the TilburgsAns project get started?
SN: The project started in 2013 when I discovered that I could put pictures into a typeface as ligatures. In typography ligatures are used to replace two separate characters (for instance f and i) by a specially designed, combined character (the fi ligature). It appeared to be possible to construct ligatures of many more than two characters, so complete words can be turned into a ligature (or picture). In fact, ligatures make it possible to bridge the gap between words and images, while images can be linked to the words they represent.

In 2014 I started in cooperation with illustrator Ivo van Leeuwen to design a typeface inspired by our hometown Tilburg in the south of the Netherlands. The typeface is called TilburgsAns, a sans serif that in the meantime also contains ninety icons of specific Tilburg locations, events, persons and dialect words. The first version was released in April 2016 and a new version was recently launched at the TYPO Berlin conference.

Why did you choose to create a “jè” mark? Did you consider any other words from the Tilburg dialect?
Some dialect words that were turned into an icon are dèùf (pigeon), kaajbaand (curbstone), bèngske (bench), knòrrie (canary), lozzie (wristwatch) and kenaol (canal). I also asked Ivo to draw an icon for the word , which is an affirmation (like: “yes”) but also expresses doubt (like: “so what”). When he replied that it was not possible to make an icon for this word, I got the idea to turn it into a punctuation mark. I used the letters j and e. The j was rotated 180 degrees and the curl was elongated, so the eye of the e became visible. In fact, it’s also a kind of ligature; this refers to the genesis of the exclamation point, that originated from the Latin word io, a shout of joy.
A sample of icons from TilburgsAns
36-pt icons representing dèùf (pigeon), kaajbaand (curbstone), bèngske (bench), knòrrie (canary), lozzie (wristwatch) and kenaol (canal) from TilburgsAns (Icons by Ivo van Leeuwen.)
KH: Have you seen the “jè” mark being used in Tilburg? Have you had any feedback on it?
SN: The jè mark is incorporated in the latest version of the typeface, so it has just been launched on May 27. We think it can be used as an irony mark. There have been several predecessors like the reversed question mark, the interrobang, the sarcmark and the ironieteken. Neither of them was a real success, but we want to give it another try, because in the past many writers have suggested that they need such a mark. Besides that, the ironic phrase is often used in digital messages. There the jè mark can replace an emoticon or the wink ;-) The mark might also be a help in digital tools for translating text to speech.
What’s the future for the “jè” mark? Do you think it will appear in other typefaces?
As the logic for the design (based on the j and e) is very obvious, the mark can be constructed in any other typeface in a simple way. Furthermore it can easily be written by hand. And the design looks like an intermediate form between the exclamation point and question mark. So, all ingredients for a bright future are present ;-)

Of course, the mark still has a long way to go. First it has to be available in a typeface. That step is already taken, as you can access it by using TilburgsAnsText and typing “jè.” which turns into the ligature, the jè mark.

The next step is the application of the mark in texts. Therefor we inform writers, designers and the general public about the birth of this mark; we’ll have to wait if they are actually going to use it. Part of the ‘campaign’ is a T-shirt with the text ‘She loves you jè jè jè’, referring to the Beatles song and expressing that in the realm of love nothing is 100% for sure. [T-shirts are now available to order. See Sander’s comment below for details — ed.]

Step three is the acquisition of a Unicode [code point – ed.].

And step four is a key on the standard keyboard.

The “jè” mark in use
The jè-mark in use. (Image courtesy of Sander Neijnens.)
KH: Do you plan to add more new marks?
After I designed the jè mark, I discovered that an Austrian designer has made thirty so called typojis, as an alternative for emoticons. In my opinion this is a bit overdone. The relation between certain forms and their function is ambiguous and some typojis can’t be easily written by hand.

We don’t have plans for designing other new marks. If we can add just one punctuation mark to the toolbox of writers that would be an enormous outcome.

So there you have it: Sander Neijnens’ mark, a typographic shrug — “so what?” — or irony mark, made with uncommon care and attention, and just waiting for you to take it up. If you have access to a word processor or other platform that supports ligatures, you can get your own by downloading TilburgsAns and typing “jè.”, taking care to include the e-grave and the full stop, to see it magically replaced by Sander’s new mark.

What’s your take? Does the jè-mark stand a chance of making it into the mainstream, or is will it face the same uncertain fate as the other irony marks?

Many thanks to Sander Neijnens for answering my questions — and for designing such a thoughtful take on the irony mark! I’ll be keeping an eye out to see how it gets on.

Also, this is a quick note to say that tickets for my July 3rd talk at the British Library are now on general release. Get them here!

That is, “Tilburg Sans” with a whitespace-ectomy and some creative capitalisation. The “Ans” of the name is the project’s fictional avatar or mascot↩︎

The Book: A Talk at the British Library on Monday 3rd July

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be giving a talk about books and book history at the British Library’s Knowledge Centre, 96 Euston Road, London, at 7pm on Monday 3rd July. The talk will be about an hour long and there will be plenty of time to ask questions if you so desire. (The bar will be open later, too, until 10pm — I’ll be needing a stiff drink afterwards, I’m sure!)

Advance tickets go on sale this Thursday, the 1st of June, and on general release a week later, on the 8th of June. Learn more about the event and get ready to order your tickets here!

The photograph featured above was taken at the British Library by Steve Cadman.

Książka: The Book is now available in Polish

I’m pleased to say that the first translated edition of The Book is now available: Książka* is published in Poland by Karakter and is available there in all good bookshops. Paweł Lipszyc was the translator.

Cover of "Książka", published by karakter.pl
Cover of of Książka, the Polish edition of The Book, published by karakter.pl. (Image courtesy of Piotr Wawrzeńczyk of book/lab.)

If you’d like to learn more about The Book (or rather Książka), you can read my interview on the occasion of its publication with Zofia Zaleska of Dwutygodnik. Alternatively, you can take a look at Juliusz Kurkiewicz’s review for Gazeta Wyborcza or Jakub Nowak’s review for his blog Qbuś pożera książki — which translates, aptly, as “Qbus devours books”.

Thank you to everyone involved in making the Polish edition happen: Laurie Abkemeier and others at DeFiore and Company; Karakter and book/lab in Poland. I think it looks great, and, if you happen to buy a copy, I hope you enjoy it!

Props to Sindre Bremnes of Monokrom type foundry, whose Satyr and Faunus typefaces deal so well with all the accented Polish letters here. You can read more about them here↩︎