At the risk of making my life sound more exciting than it really is, around once a week I find myself staring at my laptop keyboard wondering which of the symbols staring back at me – not to mention those only conjured into existence via complex keystrokes – will be the next big thing. I think of the @ symbol, which found relevance in email addresses after years in the wilderness, and I consider the #, which only went truly mainstream when Twitter hashtags arrived, and this year achieved the ultimate accolade of being featured in a will.i.am album title. I think of those symbols that waited patiently for their time to come, and I wonder which will be the next in the spotlight.
Recently, I’ve noticed increased usage of the tilde, used online to signify disdain at a word or concept: “Perez Hilton’s ~journalism”, “David Cameron’s ~caring policies”, and so on. I hope this doesn’t seem like controversy for controversy’s sake but the tilde is one of my least favourite punctuation marks, and for that reason I am opposed to its swelling deployment.
The quest to identify the next symbol to be unshackled by modern usage has been complicated slightly by the rise of emojis – hundreds of tiny icons depicting everything from a love heart to a slice of melon (not to mention two different styles of pig) that paint, if not quite a thousand words, then at least several characters. The best of these is “smiling poo”, a grinning turd whose deft inclusion in a tweet or text message rarely fails to excite and amuse in equal measure. A live online chart of emoji usage, with refreshes with such startling regularity that visitors to the site must first accept a warning relating to epilepsy, shows that the cheery dung is the 87th most popular of the 872 emoticons – baggage-reclaim icons are always at the bottom, quite rightly – but the smiling poo is so omnipresent on social media that, come December, I expect to see him gracing the cover of Time magazine’s person of the year issue.
I don’t want to dwell on the smiling pile of poo. He doesn’t need the publicity and has the demeanour of someone already a little too aware of his own importance. Instead, the time has finally come for one heroic character to step into the spotlight. The glyph in question is a punctuational triumph invented in the 1960s by Madison Avenue advertising whizz Martin K Speckter, whose clients included the Wall Street Journal and the Dow Jones News Service.
While real-life Don Drapers wasted time carousing their way around Manhattan, our hero was sitting at his desk inventing a punctuation mark that he thought would save the world, or at least a bit of space on billboard ads. One unlikely upshot of Twitter’s popularity is that in 2013 its 140-character limit has made copywriters of us all, as we play around with sentence structure in an attempt to deliver important news regarding our slightly delayed commute in the punchiest way possible. But half a century before Twitter even existed, Speckter wanted to use one character where, everywhere he looked, people were using two.
He invented something that was a daring, sexy combination of question mark and exclamation mark. Naming it, he rightly dismissed the ridiculous suggestion of “exclamaquest”. Instead, he decided, it would be called the “interrobang”. Interrobang‽ Yes. Interrobang. There’s a name that means business. For a while, it looked as though it might catch on. In 1968, Remington even gave it its own key on their typewriters. But like many visionaries, Speckter never lived to see his gift to the world reach its full potential.
Now, however, I feel that it is time for the interrobang to stage a dramatic return. In many ways, with its balance of excitement and outrage, it is perfect for the fast-moving, shockaholic nature of social media. And how perfect the interrobang would look in a comment at the bottom of an article extolling the virtues of a bizarre punctuation mark while lives are lost overseas. “Call this journalism‽ Who writes this‽ What about Syria‽”. Elsewhere, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! could rebrand as, simply, Butter‽, while celebrity magazines could shift their focus to seem both more caring and more argumentative (OK‽) or, if necessary, to reflect dwindling readership (Hello‽).
The interrobang’s ascent to glory could take some time. Most keyboards still have no dedicated key for an @ sign, which is something most of us have used many times a day for two decades. Summoning a hash sign is still a pain, too, while the useless , whose existence I resent almost as much as that of the tilde, sits there lording it up with its own key. Criminally, some typefaces don’t even include the interrobang. But fear not: this epic symbol does work on Twitter. All it needs is an ambassador. One figurehead. A man brave enough to risk ridicule because he believes in justice. Surely this must fall to established hashtag apologist will.i.am. Dropping an interrobang into a forthcoming album title could finally see him using his powers for good, and The Best of will.i.am‽ certainly has a ring to it.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010