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Friday, November 12, 2010

Marks for Snarks...

Image courtesy of 
What a great idea‽  

What’s that?  It’s the nonstandard punctuation mark that combines a question mark (aka interrogative point) and an exclamation mark (or point, aka bang).  The glyph to the left is a called an interrobang, an interbang, or an quesclamation mark.  A sentence with an interrobang at the end can signify disbelief, excitement, or a rhetorical question.

In Palatino
Linotype font
Martin K. Speckter, head of an advertising agency, invented the interrobang in 1962.  He thought it would be a good way to end a rhetorical question.  He published an article in TYPEtalks magazine and asked readers for input as to what to call this new mark.  Readers also sent in their renditions of it.  In 1966, the Americana typeface was introduced and it included the interrobang character.

Comic books and some advertisements used multiple marks for decades before the interrobang was invented. The interrobang was created because the use of a question mark and an exclamation mark together was considered unsightly and cumbersome.  Even for informal writing some language connoisseurs consider multiple marks poor style, and it is a definite no-no for formal writing.

Use of the interrobang was popular in the 60s, and the word even appeared in some dictionaries.  But it turned out to be a fad.  It hasn’t disappeared entirely, and can be found in Wingdings sets.  It would probably be used more if it were on all keyboards and could easily be accessed.  There are groups and people who are advocating its use, such as Stephen Coles and Interrobang-MKS.

Rhetorical questions can also use a bracketed question mark -  "No, kidding(?)" - but that seems awkward and ungainy.  Interrobangs just make sense.

Interrobangs are also not just for English speakers.  Writers of Spanish, Galician and Asturian can use an inverted one, called a gnaborretni, or interrobang upside-down and backwards - 

Here are some different fonts and a different graphic design of the interrobang:

Logo for this library in Sydney, Australia

Image courtesy of the FontFeed

There is a similar mark used to convey irony or sarcasm.  The oldest of these was invented by Henry Denham in the 1580s.  It is the percontation point, aka the ironicon, basically a backwards question mark.  "Yeah, right⸮"

The percontation point is the same as the irony mark, used when a statement has meaning on another level.  The irony mark was proposed by Alcanter de Brahm, a French poet aka Marcel Bernhardt, in the late 19th century (Frenchpoint d’ironie).  A French author, Hervé Bazin, used the irony mark along with other marks he devised: 

doubt point (Point de doute.svg),    certitude point (Point de certitude.svg),    acclamation point (Point d'acclamation.svg), 
authority point (Point d'autorité.svg),    indignation point (Point d'indignation.svg),    and love point (Point d'amour.svg). 

Bazin used these in his book Plumons l’Oiseau ("Pluck the Bird", 1966).

An ironic or sarcastic sentence could also be expressed with a bracketed exclamation point - 
"No, kidding(!)" - which could be more simply put by using the irony mark.  There have been other ways to indicate sarcasm, because apparently there are a plethora of sarcastic writers.  Using an exclamation point in brackets is one (!).  The tilde in quotation marks has been used:  "~". 
Snark Mark courtesy
of The Snark

My favorite "ironic" punctuation mark is the snark mark.  Developed by typophile Choz Cunningham,  and inspired by de Brahm and Bazin.  It is made by placing a tilde over a period, or thus:   ".~".  It looks like a sideways exclamation point, period first.

However there is a different kind of snark mark that has its own page on Facebook.  It uses the ^ character at the end of a sarcastic sentence just before the period.  No face forms allow, i.e., ^_^.  You are allowed to use multiple marks to express extreme sarcasm.
So who knew that sarcasm rated all these punctuation marks?  All of the punctuation marks above communicate attitude and can say almost as much as the sentence they end.  I could say something, if I was feeling disbelieving, excited, rhetorical, or snarky.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


"Fado" by Jose Malhoa (1910)
All the Love that had tied us,
As if it was of wax,
Was breaking and crumbling down.
Ai, tragic Spring,
How I wish, how I wish that we
Had died on that day.
And I was condemned to so much.
To live with my crying
To live, to live, and without you.

Longing.  We have all felt this at times.  The Portuguese have a name for it:  saudade.  It doesn't translate well in words, but it is the sad and nostalgic longing for someone or something lost; a remembrance of feelings, experiences, people, or places that was once pleasurable, but all that remains is a deep longing or yearning for what no longer exists.

Saudade by Almeida, Jr.
This wistful and sad mood is the key element of fado, a music genre that can be traced to 1820s Portugal, but probably goes back much farther in time.  Fado means "fate" in Portuguese.  Some say that fado came from homesick Portuguese sailors, their songs later mixed with African slave rhythms, with Arab influences.  Like rembetiko or the blues, it came from poor areas, the slums of Lisbon, associated with taverns and brothels.  As it grew in popularity a slightly different type of fado branched off, Coimbra fado, which became popular among university students.

Characterized by mournful singing, fado is meant to be felt and experienced, and is not just for listening.  In fact, if an audience is not moved to tears, a performance is not successful and may be stopped. Although it is performed by both men and women, women singers, fadistas, are usually preferred.  It is a tradition when listening to fado in Lisbon that you clap your hands after a performance.  With Coimbra fado one coughs, as though clearing one's throat.

Although the number and kinds of instruments used today are varied, traditionally the accompaniment was a 12-string guitar, called a guitarra in Portugal, and a viola or a bass guitar.  Sometimes piano, accordion, or violin were added.  The most famous "diva" of fado was Amalia Rodrigues, who died in 1999.  The prime minister of Portugal ordered three days of mourning, so well-loved were both she and fado.

Saudades de Napoles (Missing Naples)
Bertha Worms, 1895
Fado has spread from Portugal all over the world, although younger generations are not as into it as their elders have been.  Australia has a lot of Portuguese who migrated there and fado is popular. Toronto and Montreal in Canada also have large Portuguese communities.  In the Central Valley of California there are a lot of performances that draw crowds from all over; spread by word of mouth they offer fado and feasts of Portuguese food.

There are days that seal our soul and life,
And the one that you've left me I can't forget.
The rain wet my face that was frozen and tired.
The streets of the city I've already crossed.
Ai.. my cry of young lost girl screamed to the city
That the fire of love under the rain had just died.
The rain heard and kept silence about my secret to the city
And then it knocks on the window bring saudade.
Song lyrics from Lyrics Translate


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bees do it!

Bees can’t fly.

That’s what I’ve read and keep reading.  Despite evidence to the contrary, someone somewhere decided that bees cannot possibly fly, given their build and the fact they often carry their body weight in munchies for the hive.  Never trust the obvious!

Well, it’s true that bees are not built the way the mechanisms we have created to fly – plane, jets, helicopters, gliders.  They aren’t even built like birds.  But those aren't the only ways to fly, as any insect can tell you.

The complicated mechanisms of insect aerodynamics are just beginning to be understood.  The rumor, nay, urban legend that engineers have determined that bees can't fly according to the known laws of aerodynamics only reveals the lack of understanding about them.  Unlike manmade flying machines and birds, insect wings are flat, have a rough surface, and are flexible.  Insects twist them and flex in ways that make me hurt.  That they are so small means that some of the laws of physics are very different in relation to them.

Because insect wings twist and bend so much, they maneuver through the air differently than, say, an airplane which has stiff wings to negotiate through the air.  Since air is not still, nor does it all blow in one direction, insects must negotiate the various movement patterns within air, and accounting for their small size, that requires quite a number of contortions and the ability to detect and deal with any sudden shifts in pressure or direction of flow.

It's also difficult to study insect flight, as they are so small it is hard to attach instruments to measure their efforts.  And since bees flap their wings 230 times every second (how's that for a workout?), it would be even harder to analyze their flight.  That buzzing sound you hear though, isn't caused by the beating of their wings.  It is from the vibration of its flight muscles.  

Bees also dance in efforts to communicate.  One dance relates to its buddies the source of comestibles to be brought back to the crib.  Some scientists have been able to attach tracking devices which respond to their gyrations.  The central element to the bee dance is a wiggle, or shimmy, in a straight line..  A bee may repeat this move by circling in a figure-8 pattern to make itself clearly understood.  The angle of that line relates to the direction of the food source with respect to the sun.  So a wiggly dance pointing toward 9 o'clock means the source is 90 degrees to the left of the sun. 

My bees moshing this past spring.  Some of them
left to find better digs.
Nobel prize winner Karl Von Frisch noted in the 1960s that bees have a sort of solar compass, and that the number of wiggles in a figure-8 corresponds to some bee measurement indicating how far away the food source is.  One test with a dancing mechanical bee got a response from real bees.  Whether they understood the dance or not is another thing entirely.  Sometimes a food source might be a minute away, but it will take the other bees five or ten minutes to find it.  Thus some scientists think the bees get excited by the dance and go on their merry way, but actually may follow some kind of scent train left by the Baryshnikov bee, perhaps the scent of the pollen or nectar.

Now this dance thing doesn’t work for humans.  Or at least for me.  Many a time I’ve tried a little dance to let my husband know I’m up for dinner out, and maybe a movie.  But he just snickers, grabs a cup of coffee, and heads for his office.  Wonder if I should wear yellow and black stripes…


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Go placidly...

When I was a young girl, and a hippy wannabee, I carried a copy of a prose poem that I considered to be my credo.  I was told it was from the days of ancient Rome, and that was believeable because it had a Latin name.  Through the decades, I always considered it a beautiful piece, and the words always rang true, even if I didn’t.  I recently came across it and finally have found out the truth about it.

The author was Max Ehrmann (1872-1945), a spiritual writer and attorney.  Of German descent, he was born and grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana.  He got his B.A. in English from DePauw University, then studied philosophy and law at Harvard.  He returned to Terra Haute to practice law, which lasted two years.  He then worked in the family meatpacking business and in the manufacture of overalls.  When he was 40 years old,  he quit work to write.  He wrote this famous prose poem, and even copyrighted it in 1927, but never knew fame while he was alive.

The poem was used in a collection of devotional materials by a Reverend in Baltimore, Maryland.  At the top of the handout was mention of the founding of the Reverend’s church:  “Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore, A.D. 1692”.  The poem became associated with that date, and was circulated as the work of an anonymous writer from 1692.

A copy of the poem was found by the death bed of Adlai Stevenson in 1965.  The publicity that ensued made both the poem and the poem’s connection to Saint Paul’s Church in Baltimore famous.

Les Crane made a recording of the poem, in late 1971 and early 1972, and it was a major hit in the U.S., reaching the No. 8 position on Billboard charts.  He even received a Grammy for “best spoken word recording.”  The producers of the record had assumed , as did the public, that since the poem was very old it was in the public domain.  By this time his family stepped in and claimed Ehrmann’s authorship, and eventually were able to collect royalties, albeit after some legal struggles.

Just this past August, Terre Haute honored its native son with a sculpture of Ehrmann sitting on a bench.  The name of his prose poem?  Desiderata, Latin for “things desired”:

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,

and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible without surrender

be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,

even the dull and the ignorant;

they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,

they are vexatious to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,

you may become vain and bitter;

for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;

it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs;

for the world is full of trickery.

But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;

many persons strive for high ideals;

and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.

Especially, do not feign affection.

Neither be cynical about love;

for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,

gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.

But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.

Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,

be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,

no less than the trees and the stars;

you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you,

no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,

in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,

it is still a beautiful world.

Be cheerful.

Strive to be happy.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Standing in uffish thought...

Illustration to the poem Jabberwocky by Sir John
Tenniel (1820-1914).  First published in Lewis
Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What
Alice Found There

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought –
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And Burbled as it came!

One, two!  One, two!  And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And has though slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day!  Callooh!  Callay!
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

In 1872 a writer named Lewis Carroll wrote a poem using neologisms and nonsense words entitled Jabberwocky.  It is one of two poems that I have committed to memory.   (The other one - Beans, Beans, Musical Fruit – hasn’t come in very handy.)  While traveling in India, I won many a beer by being able to recite this in bars.  (Doesn’t work here, but I know a tongue twister that does!)

There have been several suggestions as to the inspiration for this work, but none conclusive.  Let it suffice that the Lewis Carroll mind needed little to cerebrally boink. 

Despite the words, the poem observes established poetic forms, such as quatrain verses, iambic meter, and an abab rhyme scheme.  Carroll’s sport with this poem has been compared with two of his contemporaries – Edward Lear and Gerard Manley Hopkins – but there is no evidence of interaction. Perhaps it was something in the air, or the water.

Jabberwocky has been translated into many languages, which must be a translator’s nightmare.  Most translators seem to have created their own words to replace Carroll’s invented ones.  It’s even been translated into Chinese by inventing Chinese characters for the nonsense words.

Some scholars believe that the true purpose of Jabberwocky was to make fun of pretentious poetry, and to fool (equally pretentious) literary critics.  It’s also said to be a parody of contemporary Oxford scholarship.  Yet another take on it is that it was designed to teach how NOT to write a poem, which makes the fact that it is included in many classroom poetry curricula ludicrous.  Carroll would’ve loved that!

2001, Pan Books
Many satires have been done on it; one of the funniest ones from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

Oh Freddled Gruntuggly
by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz

Oh freddled gruntbuggly they micturations are to me
As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.
Groop I implore thee my foonting turlingdromes
And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,
Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my
Blurglecrucheon, see if I don’t!

(My spellchecker is burbling dangerously!)

There are many authors who offer interpretations of  the words from Jabberwocky.  The best analysis of the poem, which includes Carroll’s commentary, is in Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice.  But I think it best to just read it, or listen to it, with your mind’s translator turned off.  Just let the words flow, and you just might sense what it all means.

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel
Remember, "Feed Your Mind".