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The origin of species: keyboard symbols (1 Viewer)

Andrew Pratt

Senior HTF Member
Dec 8, 1998
The origin of species: keyboard symbols

Source: www.statesman.com

Fact, legend, lore and languages contributed to creating these common marks

! @ # $ % ^ & * () _ +

Magically one day it appeared — a teenie, tiny burnt orange tower next to the Internet URL (uniform resource locator) for the University of Texas.

Others followed.

Soon I spied the red letters of CNN, the lower case white "a" and gold arrow of Amazon, the multicolored box housing the Goggle "G," as well as the bitten apple, an obvious connection to Apple Computer.

What's the deal with these new additions to the address bar? Then, glancing down at the row of symbols on my keyboard, I wondered: How did these come about?

Just who picked the "!" to be an exclamation point, "@" for the at sign, "#" as the number sign and "$" for dollars? Each was formed long before these signs were substituted for expletives.

Some of the histories of these signs and symbols are a bit murky. But even anecdotal origins are interesting. Many come from other languages. For the most part, the histories of these symbols are tales of Latin words abbreviated and manipulated into symbols.

Whether you invert the question mark or place it at the beginning or end of a question, it is fun to know its origin. (The question mark symbol is from the first and last letter — "q" and "o" — of "quaestio," Latin for seeking or searching.)

Have you, too, wondered about the purpose of new nano-symbols in URLs and the older, more pedestrian keyboard symbols? Do you know other yarns about symbols and their origins? I welcome you to share them with me. Enjoy this foray into the origins of symbols and the world of glyphs.

Excess or advertising?

The icon placement at beginning of a URL seems a bit like overkill. In the URL box at the top of a screen a company's name is there, albeit with wordsrunningtogetherlikemeltedbutter. Why do it?

Placing the icon or a trademark symbol next to an Internet address is one more way to burn it into the brains of consumers and (hopefully) conjure good associations.

"Human memory is associative," says Dan Howard, marketing department chair at Southern Methodist University. This single element cues the memory to "all other associations connected with that engram," Howard notes. (An engram is the medical term for a change in neural tissue, which accounts for memory.)

Symbols cut through cultures and language, producing a common meaning. For example, the male and female symbols on restroom doors and the script of Coca-Cola are instantly recognizable. Companies spend millions of dollars protecting trademarked signs and symbols. Why not use them everywhere possible?

Is that an ink spot or a horse?

Sometimes a business or organization uses part of an icon to suggest the whole (longhorn head and horns in lieu of a full-body Bevo, for example).

In the world of URL some icons are more successful than others. The University of Texas Tower and the Southern Methodist University red mustang look a bit scrunched in this format. But the McDonald's golden "M" on a red square is immediately recognizable, as are the colorful, stylized peacock of NBC and the "UN" between green bars of the United Nations symbol.

!Exclamation point!

The origin of this symbol is thought to be a stage direction — a vertical, abbreviated writing of the Latin word for hurrah — "io." "The 'i' is short and the 'o' is long, so you get yo — like the 'Yo, Adrian!' line from 'Rocky,' " according to Greg Mele, Latin teacher at St. Andrew's Episcopal School.

The word io was written vertically at the end of a sentence or paragraph with the "i" topping the "o". Eventually the "o" was closed and the "i" lengthened to a vertical line.

The "!" was born as a way for the writer to direct the reader to be joyous, to exclaim. The sentence is to be read with enthusiasm.


@ At sign

According to the folks at the Oxford English Dictionary, "this sign originated as a scribe's quick way of writing the Latin word 'ad,' which means to or toward, especially in lists of prices of commodities." The symbol's original meaning for merchants (cost per unit, each) has become the worldwide accepted computer link between a user's name and a domain name in Internet addresses.

The at sign has acquired various colorful nicknames in other languages (snail, worm, pig's tail, monkey's tail, etc.) but none has caught on in English.

$ Dollar sign

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing credits the dollar sign to the evolution of the Spanish "P" for pesos, piastres or pieces of eight. The sign was written as a plural "P" with the lowercase "s."

This theory contends that the "s" gradually came to be written over the "P". The resulting symbol is a close cousin to the "$", which was used in many areas as a symbol of monetary amounts before the adoption of the "$" for the dollar sign in the United States in 1785.

The twin pillars on a Spanish coin, known as the pillars of Hercules, are thought by some to be the origin of the double lines passing through an "S" to make the dollar sign. (The pillars of Hercules are a geographic reference to the high points on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar.)

% Percent

Basing transactions on 100 has been common since the time of Roman Emperor Augustus — taxes on sold goods, for example. This was expressed as 20 per 100 or 20 per cento. The shorthand was 20 p cento.

The symbol used today is a contraction of the per cento — "p cento", then "p/ 100", then "p/0" and finally "%".

Some suggest the sign is a split of the two zeros in 100, so "0/0" is a portion of the whole.

^ Circumflex or caret

The circumflex is an aid to English speakers indicating a letter, often in a foreign word, that has a strange pronunciation, such as papier-mâché or pâté. In some languages — French for example — it indicates the pronunciation of a phantom "s" as in hôpital.

Caret can be traced to "carere," a Latin word that literally means to cut off or be without, but also means something is missing. Circumflex goes back to "circumflectere," Latin for bending around. In proofreading, this mark indicates something to be inserted.

& Ampersand

This symbol is considered to be a combination of the letters in the Latin word for "and" (et). The word is believed to be a slurring of "and per se."

Some sources report ampersand is a corruption of "emperor's hand," but that sounds more like a wishful rhyme than fact. (Perhaps this is a case for www.kissthisguy.com, an archive of misheard lyrics.)

In the one-room schoolhouse recitation of the alphabet, the ampersand was often the 27th letter.

* Asterisk

Asterisk is from the Greek word meaning small star. This splat looks like a star and shines light on whatever it is near. Pretty straightforward.

( ) Parentheses

The word comes from the Greek, "parentithenai," to put inside or to insert. Comments between these two lines have been placed inside other comments — a paragraph or sentence. The symbol itself is self-explanatory and easier to write than a circle around the added phrase.

+ Plus sign - Minus sign = Equal sign

Many different ways to express addition and subtraction have been used. The Chinese dispensed with symbols for addition and subtraction, preferring colored rods. Black rods represented negative numbers and red rods represented positive numbers. Yes, the opposite of what black and red mean in today's accounting.

My favorite are the Egyptian hieroglyphs for addition and subtraction showing two legs. If the feet appeared to walk from right to left , that was a plus sign; left to right meant a minus. Basis? Reading was right to left so right-to-left movement was progress or positive, and left-to-right movement was regression or negative.

In medieval times, plus and minus in calculations were often indicated by the letters "p" and "m" (plus and minus) with a wavy line above them. In the commercial world, brewers marked kegs as "+" for full or "-" for empty. Some wordsmiths such as Michael Quinion of World Wide Words assert the plus was a scrawled form of the Latin word for "and" (et), by dropping the "e" and simplifying the "t" to a "+".

The plus and minus signs used today have been traced to early manuscripts by Johann Widman, a German mathematician, in 1486. While scattered uses of the plus and minus symbol abound, 16th-century English mathematician Robert Recorde formalized the use of the plus and the minus in a 1557 tome. In "The Whetstone of Witte," Recorde wrote: "There be other 2 signes in often use of which the first is made thus + and betokeneth more: the other is thus made - and betokeneth lesse."

Recorde also is credited with the formal debut of parallel lines as the equal sign. Recorde's equal sign was elongated and was an improvement over the single long line or vertical parallel lines used by other mathematicians and writers such as René Descartes. Some believe this sign is a slanted abbreviation of the first and last letters of Greek word equal; others, an abbreviation of the astrological sign for Taurus placed sideways. Seems a stretch.

Feel the need for detailed information on mathematical symbols? Pick up a copy of "A History of Mathematical Notations" by Florian Cajori.

The cloverleaf

Splat, shamrock, flower — call this little symbol what you will.

Before it sat next to the apple symbol, this cloverleaf was known as the St. Hannes Cross. In Scandinavia, the symbol indicates places of historic interest.

Susan Kare, design guru who worked for Apple Computer between 1983 and 1986 as the icon and font designer for the new computer, the Macintosh, is credited with placing this symbol on the command key.

"I did select that symbol, and found it in a book that had it listed as a Swedish campground symbol for 'interesting feature'— so I latched onto the 'feature' idea," Kare says.

Recently, Kare reports, she found out the symbol is a rendering of a castle with turrets, seen from a bird's-eye view.

# Pound sign

You might call it hatch marks, pound sign or number sign, but some wordsmiths call this symbol an octothorpe. Octo (eight from the eight points at the end of the crossed lines, I suppose) and thorpe from the Old English meaning hamlet. Do the areas defined by the cross marks look to you like lots in a town?

Pound is probably the most correct name for this symbol. Pound is slang for "pound avoirdupois," a unit of weight. Avoirdupois means "goods sold by weight" and a pound is a measure of mass.

The abbreviation "lb" for pound comes from the Latin "libra pondo". What does this have to do with the pound sign?

Some believe printers were concerned the "l" in "lb" would be misread for the number "1" and crossed it with a line for emphasis. The crossed "lb" became the tic-tac-toe pound sign utilized today


Senior HTF Member
Feb 18, 2004
Real Name
Your author there isn't too much to be relied upon.

For example : the Latin expression for "in the hundred" is per centum, not "per cento", because per always takes an accusative object. The form "per centum" may be found in quite recent English texts, often as an adjectival phrase modifying a noun antecedent, e.g. "five pounds per centum".


Supporting Actor
May 29, 2003
Everyone knows that the only punctuation mark worth caring about is the interrobang, and the history of that mark is well known and well established.



Second Unit
Jan 20, 2004

Indeed, the French word hopital doesn't have a phantom 's' in it, it's pronounced pretty much how it's spelled but with a French accent obviously. It's more accurate to say the the circumflex is placed over vowels that used to be followed by an s in middle French.


Senior HTF Member
Feb 18, 2004
Real Name
Well, there was a silent "s" there right up until the Revolution, when the French Academy did away with them and substituted the circumflex (thus saving paper by increasing the cost of a set of printer's tipe). If by "phantom" you mean not only "missing" but "ineffective", the shoe fits. Somehow that firebrand Revolutionary institution has become one of the most stodgy creatures in the World.

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