Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A p@ge-ninety test

A page-ninety test, conducted while browsing in a bookstore:

From this starting point as a unit of measure in southern Europe, by the eighteenth century the @ symbol had entered English as mercantile shorthand for “at the rate of,” and by the later nineteenth century the symbol was known by the flatly descriptive appellation “commercial a.” Prospering in commercial circles, noted but not dwelled on by printers and typographers, and rarely warranting much interest from the general reader, the stolid @ symbol nevertheless came close to extinction in the face of two of the nineteenth century’s greatest innovations.

Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, & Other Typographical Marks (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013).
I liked the purposeful repetition: “by the eighteenth century,” “by the later nineteenth century.” I liked the phrase “flatly descriptive appellation.” I liked the parallelism — “prospering,” “noted but not dwelled on,” “rarely warranting” — and the amusing personification of the @ symbol as a “stolid” citizen, doing its work, minding its own business, and suddenly facing extinction. I liked the playful use of color, which runs through the book. And of course I wanted to keep reading: just what were the innovations that threatened this symbol’s life?

Reader, I bought it.

Related posts
Ford Madox Ford’s page-ninety test
My Salinger Year, a page-ninety test
Nature and music, a page-ninety test
A history of handwriting, a page-ninety test
A book about happiness, a page-ninety test
The Slow Professor, a page-forty-five test

[The innovations: the first commercially successful typewriter and Herman Hollerith’s Tabulator for punch cards. Each machine lacked the @ symbol.]

comments: 0