Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A colon followed by a dash

Is there a name for an older habit of punctation, the semicolon followed a dash? An entry in Webster’s Second made me wonder. I think the answer is no . But that’s a provisional think.

There is, however, a name, rarely used, for another older habit of punctuation, the colon followed by a dash. I associate that habit, always, with Willa Cather:

His daughter Kathleen, who had done several successful studies of him in water-colour, had once said:—“The thing that really makes Papa handsome is the modelling of his head between the top of his ear and his crown; it is quite the best thing about him.” The Professor’s House, 1925.

Of course she regretted Tennessee, though she would never admit it to Mrs. Rosen:—the old neighbours, the yard and garden she had worked in all her life, the apple trees she had planted, the lilac arbour, tall enough to walk in, which she had clipped and shaped so many years. “Old Mrs. Harris.” In Obscure Destinies, 1932.
When I searched for colon followed by a dash , Google returned this page, and I went straightaway to the Oxford English Dictionary.¹ The colon-and-dash is known as dog’s bollocks, or dog’s ballocks. The OED labels it Brit. coarse slang and rare :
Typogr. a colon followed by a dash, regarded as forming a shape resembling the male sexual organs.
The only citation is from the third (1949) edition of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English : “Dog’s ballocks , the typographical colon-dash (:—).”

The OED gives a later meaning, c. 1986 (with the ): ”the very best, the acme of excellence.” An OED citation: “Yeah, Jon Bon Jovi is the dog’s bollocks.” Someone had fun getting that in the Dictionary.

The OED is also the dog’s bollocks, especially now that I know that it’s possible to search for text in definitions. But Willa Cather is not the dog’s bollocks. She is just the very best, the acme of excellence, especially in The Professor’s House. James Schuyler: “Willa Cather alone is worth / The price of admission to the horrors of civilization.”

¹ The page at the link gets it wrong: dog’s bollocks, not the dog’s bollocks, is the typographical slang.

Related reading
All OCA punctuation posts (Pinboard)
All OCA Willa Cather posts (Pinboard)

comments: 1

The Crow said...

Then I guess I'm glad I stopped, all those years ago, using the dash in making my smiley face emoticon.