The Report

THE BIG 'BANG


In a time long before emojis, a New York advertising executive invented a simple piece of punctuation that could convey a more complicated emotion.

Sometimes when writing you want to signal surprise and puzzlement at the same time. For instance, with the phrase “Can you believe it?!” which is both a question and a statement. But rather than use an exclamation mark and a question mark to convey that feeling, wouldn't it be great if there were one symbol that could do the job.

The short-lived interrobang was an attempt to do just that. In 1962 New York advertising executive Martin Speckter tired of seeing “?!” and promoted a fusion of the two. Interest grew in the ad and design worlds, and four years later the new Americana typeface had the interrobang among its characters. In 1968, typewriter giant Remington Rand gave it a place on the keyboard of its latest model. A company newsletter trumpeted the positive early feedback “from typographers who are said to commend it for its ability to express the incredulity of modern life.” Speckter was poised to become first person in centuries to introduce a new punctuation mark into English. Alas, his dream was not to be. Grammarians and lexicographers proved skeptical, and the automated typesetting machines used for printing magazines and newspapers were even less accommodating of new characters. The buzz evaporated by the early seventies, and no comeback was forthcoming during the personal-computer revolution of the eighties and nineties, either. Several Unicode fonts do still include it, though. Rather than dismissing it as a failed punctuation mark, maybe the fairest way to view the interrobang is as a primitive emoticon – one that was far ahead of its time.

Text: Darrell Hartman