Symbols and punctuation are used frequently in English writing, yet many people know little or nothing about their histories. Interestingly, few of the symbols writers use today are solely from English; most of them have foreign roots.

The list of punctuation marks' histories as complete as I know:

  • Ampersand: ( & )From modern English, a corruption of "and per se". Some think that ampersand comes from a corruption of "Emperor's Hand", which is incorrect. The symbol itself is thought to come from combining the letters of the Latin word for "and" ("et") to yield &. An interesting counter-argument to this theory has been posted at: http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=81ami6%24c36%241%40nnrp1.deja.com&output=gplain
  • Apostrophe: ( ' ) From the Greek for "of turning away", "elision". The symbol was used as a negation mark before the un-, in-, and a- prefixes were invented to smooth out the writing style. Geofroy Tory (the famous typesetter) introduced France to the character in printed works around 1511, but he never named it. It later spread to other languages and had its name changed to the "apostrophe" at an unknown date.
  • Colon: ( : ) From the Greek word for limb, or member. No, there is no link to the anatomical colon. If you think of a listing sentence (i.e.- Visible colors include: red, blue, and green.), the beginning half before the colon could be considered a "tree trunk" of sorts, and the second half would be the branches off of that main trunk. The other way of describing this is to think of a listing sentence as a group definition (colors), and the items that are part of that group, or members.
  • Comma: ( , ) From the Greek for "piece cut off", derived from the Greek verb for "to strike", as if the sentence has been cut into two halves on either side of the comma.
  • Dollar Sign: ( $ ) From the German word for "valley", as a shortened reference to a silver mine and mint in "Joachim's Valley". The symbol itself is thought to be derived from "8" as in "pieces of eight". "Pieces of Eight" comes from the physical division of an old Spanish silver coin into its eight pieces, called "reals". To have a set of 8 reals is to have (essentially) a full coin, so the | is only added down the center of the 8 to symbolize a whole coin. (Gritchka pointed out: "Alternative etymologies are Ps for peso (the Spanish currency), and even |S| representing the river between the valley banks.")
  • Exclamation Mark: ( ! ) From the Latin word for "to call out". The symbol itself is thought to come from the first and last letters of the Latin word for "joy" ("io"). The I was placed over the O, as if writing "joy" vertically, to denote that the sentence was to be exclaimed in a joyous manner. Later, the exclamation mark was shrunken to fit onto one line, and the O was closed to make a dot.
  • Question Mark: ( ? ) Originally from the Latin for "to ask". The symbol itself is thought to be derived from the first and last letters of "quaestio" put together. The q was on top, and the O was placed below it. Later, the bottom of the curve in the q was lost, and so it appeared to make the modern shape. Also, the O was closed to make a dot like the exclamation mark (above).
  • Ellipsis: ( ... ) From the Greek for "to come up short", originally used in geometry. The three dots were representative of the ending of the last sentence, and then two other sentences that were omitted. The other two "sentences" could be either obvious parts of a mathematical proof that were omitted, or pauses in speech.
  • Parenthesis: () From the Greek for "to put in beside", "to place". The () marks were used to add a comment inside a sentence or phrase, and so the comments were considered to be "placed inside" the sentence.
  • Period: ( . ) From the Greek for "going round", "circuit", "revolution". Originally used to designate the cycle between the Olympic games. Another theory says that the period denoted when a sentence "came to a point" and completed the statement. A period is a "point", and so it seems obvious that when the sentence came to a point, it was marked with a point.
  • Asterisk: ( * )The root of the word, "Aster", is a conjugation of the greek word "Astro-", a prefix meaning "star" (as in "heavenly body"). Therefore, the asterisk is drawn like a twinkling star, in a raised position to symbolize the fact that it is above everything else. (Thanks to Gritchka for help with "Aster")
  • Caret: ( ^ ) A bogus story I found: An editor's mark placed in-between two words that needed more detail. Long ago, editors used to mark articles and books in orange colored pen for some reason, and so the authors or journalists that got their work back thought that it looked like a "carrot patch", and caret is just a corruption of that phrase. Wrong! (but an interesting tale) Thanks to Gritchka, who pointed toward the Latin root- the Caret translates to "it is lacking", meaning that there is detail lacking in the story at that point.
  • Quotation Mark: ( " ) Originally from the Latin for "to mark the number of" (related to "quota"). (Quoted from www.dictionary.com)
  • Percentage: ( % ) The percentage symbol is made of three sub-characters- 010. Percentages come out of 100, and so it is assumed that the shifting of the 1 to the center of the number was purely aesthetic. The % sign means that the number before it is a fraction of 100. Another theory states that just the 00 stands for 100, and the / in the middle is cutting the 100. Therefore, the number is a "cut" of 100, or a section. (Thanks to BlakJak, who pointed out that percent literally means: per- "out of" cent-"hundred")
  • Octothorpe: ( # ) See Octothorpe. Omegas did a quality writeup and beat me to it. The reason why the # symbol is called a "hash mark" is unknown, but my best guess is that "to hash" means "to cut up", and so the mark looks like a set of four scratches/cuts on something.

These are only a few of the more common punctuation marks used in English. This is an ongoing project, and not nearly complete.

On a similar note, I found an extensive explanation of the etymology of mathematical symbols at http://members.aol.com/jeff570/operation.html for those who might be interested.

For a listing on how to use these symbols and others in HTML, visit the HTML symbol reference.

Thanks to Wertperch, Gritchka, BlakJak, and emlife for their assistance. Know anything that I missed? /msg me and I will be glad to add it!

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