Who forgot to put gas in the car‽
March 12, 2015 1:43 AM   Subscribe

Three years ago, for the 50th birthday of the interrobang, a punctuation mark combining both the shape and the meaning of a question mark and an exclamation mark, Nora Maynard interviewed Penny Spekter, the widow of its creator, about typography and working as a woman in advertising in the 1960s.

A short history of the interrobang, Part 1 and Part 2
posted by frimble (16 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
As a weird sort of footnote to this story: the interrobang may have never really caught on in the mainstream, but it did enjoy some popularity with an unlikely crowd. R. Crumb and other underground cartoonists of the 1960s featured it in their comics, usually to punctuate scenes of depravity involving drugs and/or dongs. I couldn't find a single example online, but trust me, it was a real thing.

I always assumed it was from 1920s comics or advertising and the undergrounders were bringing it back, the same way they used a lot of old-time-y graphics. I never would've guessed it was something modern, straight from Madison Avenue.

The weird thing is, if the symbol will be remembered for posterity at all it will probably be through its use in the undergrounds. Most of the advertisements where the symbol appeared were in magazines and papers that are now crumbling away unread somewhere, but people still read Zap Comix.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:25 AM on March 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


> but it did enjoy some popularity with an unlikely crowd.

Not too unlikely. Many (I won't say 'most' because I don't know if that's true) underground cartoonists had commercial art training, and most of them had exposure to the corporate commercial art world. Crumb most famously, for his stint at American Greetings, but even Robert Williams spent some time in a suit and tie in his younger days.

If they were turning on and dropping out, they had to have something to drop out of, I guess. I suspect that for some of them it was not only a way to stay fed while making comics, it probably served as a good training in graphics art and production processes: most of those early underground comics lack the shabby prepress work that is evident in, eg., the black and white indies of the 1980s.

Sorry for the digression -- as a former graphics production artist and erstwhile fan of the old underground comics, your comment drew a connection I hadn't considered before.
posted by ardgedee at 4:05 AM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Serendipity! They name is metafilter.

Yesterday I started reading Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. (Only ~100pages in, and if you're a history nerd at all, it will greatly appeal to you. The Interrobang (‽) is right after The Pilcrow (¶) chapter, and right before the Octothorpe(#) one.)
posted by DigDoug at 4:36 AM on March 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


Totally didn't see that you'd linked to the book's author's blog. Didn't know the author had one. Now I have a new feed for Newsblur! Double favorites for frimble!
posted by DigDoug at 4:42 AM on March 12, 2015


The success of this character is highlighted by how it is missing in most browsers.
posted by clvrmnky at 4:59 AM on March 12, 2015


In my own usage, a single exclamation mark can easily express the interrobang. Can it not!
posted by rmmcclay at 5:25 AM on March 12, 2015




It has been a long time since I've seen an interrobang used non-ironically or other than as a historical artifact. I can remember seeing them in R Crumb-style comics, as noted above, and in a few books and articles, but by the time I was reading the interrobang's days were over -- I've only seen it used in things from the very narrow time period she discusses. I suspect the reason it didn't succeed is that it really isn't any more elegant than the doubled "?!", and the use of two characters produces an emphasis of its own that a single character does not.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:25 AM on March 12, 2015


When I was growing up, my dad said, “You can be a secretary or a teacher.” I didn't want to be either...

So much talent wasted.
posted by nev at 5:57 AM on March 12, 2015


(Not that secretaries or teachers can't be talented!)
posted by nev at 5:59 AM on March 12, 2015


(Not that secretaries or teachers can't be talented!)

It's the reverse -- that back in the day, secretaries and teachers and nurses were often ridiculously over-talented for their positions, because there were not other paths open to smart and ambitious women and advancement in those professions was exceedingly limited. Now those same talented and ambitious women would have the option of taking other paths, or of becoming upper level administrators or executives in those same fields. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was largely limited to a small range of jobs or staying home.

I am reminded of the departmental secretaries when I was in undergrad, who were very much of that generation and were smarter than most of the (mostly male, except for new hires) professors, but who had not had the option of higher education and academic advancement.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:14 AM on March 12, 2015


Is there gas in the car? Yes, there's gas in the car!
posted by Rob Rockets at 6:15 AM on March 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


It has been a long time since I've seen an interrobang used non-ironically or other than as a historical artifact.

I use them a lot in informal writing, but I would never use one in a formal setting. This is ironic I suppose because the interrobang is more likely to be understood by an academic audience and less likely by my Facebook friends or twitter followers.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:27 AM on March 12, 2015


I prefer the interrobang, but when I choose not to use it I often have a hard time deciding between ?! and !? – as in, is there a subtle difference in emotion being expressed due to the ordering?
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:45 AM on March 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


is there a subtle difference in emotion being expressed due to the ordering?

Yes!

?! -> whut-bang
!? -> bang-whut
posted by Walleye at 7:05 AM on March 12, 2015


I'm personally promoting the semiquest, a question mark in which the period at the bottom is replaced by a comma, thus constituting a combination question mark and semicolon. This permits the posing of questions with successive clauses, seriatim.
posted by 0rison at 1:28 PM on March 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


My colleague integrated the interrobang into our 404 page, which means we get to explain it every so often. I'm always delighted.
posted by epersonae at 1:20 PM on March 13, 2015


« Older drugs, sex, greed, grotesque behavior: it could...   |   "The most important thing I did was listen." Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments