All about: the interrobang

Don’t let your spell checker put you crook (or, worse, suggest that you intended to type ‘interracial gangbang’). The interrobang () is not only real, but quite possibly – it celebrated its 60th birthday last year – here to stay.

all about the interrobang idealogLike Esperanto, autotuning and Nikki Watson’s breasts, the interrobang is a child of science, not nature. It was born in the USA in 1962 when ad agency head Martin K. Speckter decided his craft would be well served if someone would create a punctuation mark that combined the properties of the question mark with those of its self-assured cousin, the exclamation mark.

Lazily – this was the alleged era of the three-martini lunch, after all – he didn’t go as far as deciding what his creation would be called, or even what it would look like. In an early example of what would today be called crowd sourcing, he instead called for ideas in an article in typography magazine TYPEtalk.

Typewriters and Number 2 pencils the length of the Eastern Seaboard clattered and scritched in response, and before long Speckter was deluged with suggestions. Exclarotive and exclamaquest never made the cut, nor did the possibly Gone With The Wind-inspired rhet. Instead, Speckter chose a mix of the Latin root for question (as in interrogation) and the typesetter’s slang for exclamation mark (bang).

The design itself was obvious, in hindsight, literally combining the two punctuation marks as if they’d been typed one over the other.

To say the new mark was popular would be an understatement. In the months following its release, America was gripped with interrobang fever, and interrobang societies sprung up in every major city to lobby printers, newspaper publishers and education authorities to give the interrobang official status. In his last published speech before his assassination, President Kennedy used the interrobang no fewer than 14 times. In 1964, Time Magazine planned to name the interrobang Man of the Year (the first time a punctuation mark had received the honour), before making a last- minute decision to replace it with Reverend Martin Luther King. And when the Apollo 8 spacecraft orbited the moon for the first time in 1968, the interrobang formed part of its official mission patch. Such was the popularity of Mr Speckter’s mark that a Vatican commission spent nine years examining how it might be used to re-punctuate the gospels in order to more accurately reflect their original spoken form.

You believed all that?!

The truth is a little more down to earth. While the interrobang was warmly received at first and the word appeared in a few dictionaries, it never really caught on – as evidenced by the sea of red squiggles peppering this document as I type. A couple of typewriter manufacturers included it as a key option in the late 60s, but you’d be hard pressed to find one today.

The wave of enthusiasm that greeted the interrobang’s arrival – a wave that, in truth, would have proven difficult to surf – was closely followed by a tsunami of outright skepticism. The Wall Street Journal (for whom Speckter’s agency coincidentally produced advertising) welcomed the birth of the first new punctuation mark since the quotation mark 300 years earlier, but its critics were many and cruel. Excellently named writer William Zinnser suggested in 1968 that if the interrobang were to live then perhaps it should be joined by the percentquote (%”), “to suggest that the person you’re quoting should only be partially believed”. Some rooster suggested that an upside down and backwardly named version would be handy for Spanish speakers, but the gnaborretni disappointed Scrabble players everywhere
by never really taking off.

Occasional use in cartoon dialogue bubbles aside, Speckter’s baby has been dying out slowly since its late 1960s peak. Not so Speckter, who died all at once in 1988, leaving as his legacy the punctuation that never really made its mark: the interrobang.