The Origin of Everyday Punctuation Marks

The following article is from Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader. Here are the origins of several symbols we use in everyday life.

Question Mark

Origin: When early scholars wrote in Latin, they would place the word questio - meaning "question" - at the end of a sentence to indicate a query. To conserve valuable space, writing it was soon shortened to qo, which caused another problem - readers might mistake it for the ending of a word. So they squashed the letters into a symbol: a lowercased q on top of an o. Over time the o shrank to a dot and the q to a squiggle, giving us our current question mark.

Exclamation Point

Origin: Like the question mark, the exclamation point was invented by stacking letters. The mark comes from the Latin word io, meaning "exclamation of joy." Written vertically, with the i above the o, it forms the exclamation point we use today.

Equal Sign

Origin: Invented by English mathematician Robert Recorde in 1557, with this rationale: "I will settle as I doe often in woorke use, a paire of paralleles, or Gmowe [i.e., twin] lines of one length, thus : , bicause noe 2 thynges, can be more equalle." His equal signs were about five times as long as the current ones, and it took more than a century for his sign to be accepted over its rival: a strange curly symbol invented by Descartes.


Origin: This symbol is stylized et, Latin for "and." Although it was invented by the Roman scribe Marcus Tullius Tiro in the first century B.C., it didn't get its strange name until centuries later. In the early 1800s, schoolchildren learned this symbol as the 27th letter of the alphabet: X, Y, Z, &. But the symbol had no name. So, they ended their ABCs with "and, per se, and" meaning "&, which means 'and.'" This phrase was slurred into one garbled word that eventually caught on with everyone: ampersand.


Origin: The odd name for this ancient sign for numbering derives from thorpe, the Old Norse word for a village or farm that is often seen in British placenames. The symbol was originally used in mapmaking, representing a village surrounded by eight fields, so it was named the octothorp.

Dollar Sign

Origin: When the U.S. government begin issuing its own money in 1794, it used the common world currency - the peso - also called the Spanish dollar. The first American silver dollars were identical to Spanish pesos in weight and value, so they took the same written abbreviations: Ps. That evolved into a P with an s written right on top of it, and when people began to omit the circular part of the p, the sign simply became an S with a vertical line through it.

Olympic Rings

Origin: Designed in 1913 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the five rings represent the five regions of the world that participated in the Olympics: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. While the individual rings do not symbolize any single continent, the five colors - red, blue, green, yellow, and black - were chosen because at least one of them is found on the flag of every nation. The plain white background is symbolic of peace.

"The Symbol"

Origin: Okay, so we're running out of symbols, but this is a great pop culture story: In 1993, Prince's dissatisfaction with his record label, Warner Bros., finally reached its peak. Despite his superstar status and $100 million contract, the Purple One didn't feel he had enough creative control over his music. So "in protest," Prince announced that Prince would never perform for Warner Bros. again - this unpronounceable symbol would instead. The symbol for the Artist Formerly Known as Prince combined three ancient symbols: the male symbol, the female symbol, and the alchemy symbol for soapstone, which was supposed to reflect his artistic genius. Prince retired the symbol when his contract with Warner Bros. ran out in 2000. Today, he is again Prince.
The article above, titled What the #!&%?, is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

Funny. In french, "ampersand" is called "esperluette", which comes from the same origin than the english word : it was the 27th letter of the alphabet, but instead of being pronounced "and, per se, and", it was "et, per se, et".
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I'm pretty sure Robert Recorde was Welsh, not English. (I went to Swansea University and had many lectures in the Robert Recorde room).
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I read somewhere that the octothorpe was created by a man who named it for the eight lines sticking out (-octo) and his favorite footballer David Thorpe.

I'm probably wrong though...
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That's the first time I've seen the name for an Octothorp. It's always been the pound sign to me. I liked theses stories, especially about the ampersand.
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I'm quite certain that there is a step missing in the explanation for the exclamation mark.
"Io" must be an abbreviation for "Iocundum" or "Iocundia" which, indeed, means joy or jubilation.
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This 'octothorp' etymology is almost certainly false.

Here's a good-as-any discussion of the word's uncertain and contested origin:
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I read somewhere that the question mark represented the tail of a perplexed cat, with the dot standing for the anus. Makes sense doesn't it ?
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Fascinating article. Although I think Prince's objection that lead to adopting the symbol was mostly based around the fact that Warner Brothers had trademarked the name "Prince," and he was mad that they thought his name was their property.
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I've heard the "@" sign called an "ampersat." I assume this is by analogy: "Ampersand" means "and," so therefore "ampersat" must mean "at." I can't find any source backing this up, though.

Also, the interrobang is a punctuation mark whose time, I think, has come:
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First, thanks to Alex at Neatorama, who encouraged me to post this in comments after I'd emailed it in.

It is true that the Latin word "io" is an interjection, although it can mean pain as well as joy:

IO, interj., expressing joy, "ho! huzza! hurra!" [references from Plautus, Horace, and Pliny]--II. Expressing pain. "oh! ah!" [references from Plautus and Tibullus]--III. Used in a sudden and vehement call, "holla! look! quick!" [references from Vergil and Ovid]. (Lewis & Short, A Latin Dictionary, 1879, pp.997-998)

I can find no evidence, however, for it being used as an abbreviation, and the reference sources I've checked (Encyclopedia Britannica Online: "Punctuation in Greek and Latin to 1600;" Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language: "Punctuation") give no such origin story. What they do say is that the exclamation point wasn't introduced into the punctuation pantheon until the 17th century and, as a student of medieval Latin palaeography, I can tell you that it makes no sense to have introduced abbreviations at a time when print had already taken over from handwritten manuscripts (the reason for the development of palaeographical abbreviations in the first place).

I find the source--Uncle John--to be incredibly suspect. Their origin story for the question mark, for example--Latin scholars most emphatically did NOT end query sentences with the word "qu[a]estio"--there was no need, as the query words were already built into the sentence. According to Cappelli's "Dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane," the definitive work on Latin abbreviations, "qu[a]estio" was originally abbreviated with "qtio" with a line over it. In the 15th century, "qo" with an arched line over it was introduced, but it would never have been placed at the end of a sentence.

According to the "Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language," "The term QUESTION MARK has been used for less than a century: the earlier term was mark/point of interrogation (late 16c). It is a descendant of the punctus interrogativus, one of the marks found in 10–13c liturgical manuscripts, where it indicated inflection of the voice. The terms mark/note of exclamation and SEMICOLON both date from the 17c."

I'm sorry to be such a pedant about this--and I'm happy to do further research into the orthography of the exclamation point--but this sort of folk etymology is a particular pet peeve of mine (I'm constantly debunking the email forwards I get from my mother, which purport to describe the origins of folk phrases), and I wanted to set the record a little straughter.

I fear that one must always be a little suspicious of historical data that comes from a book called Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader. For a popular, readable, yet eminently accurate version of this kind of book, I highly recommend Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which should be in every thinking person's library!

All the best,


p.s.--Uncle John also makes reference, in the entry on the ampersand, to the "Roman scribe Marcus Tullius Tiro." Marcus Tullius Cicero, the orator and rhetor, did have a Greek slave named, simply, Tiro who acted as his scribe, and who invented a series of abbreviations that are known as "Tironian notes." He did not invent the ampersand, however. Tiro's abbreviation for "et" looked like a 7 (which is why I've always found a particular delight on the joining of the & and 7 on the same keyboard key). The use of the Tironian 7 as "et" continued well into the middle ages, and the introduction of the ampersand, which really is a contorted rendering of the actual word "et," dates to around the 12th century. According to the OED, the etymology of the word "ampersand" is "Corruption of 'and per se-and', the old way of spelling and naming the character & ; i.e. '& by itself = and;' found in various forms in almost all the dialect Glossaries." This has nothing to do with the alphabet story offered via Uncle John.
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the us dollar sign is not from the Ps ! its originaly from US to mean United States and was placed in front of the dollare amount so as to mean X amount of dollars in US money! the US were later placed one on top of the other to for the symbol we know today . some lazy shmucks only use one line because there...well... lazy.
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The # sign is called "hash" (in Australia at least) especially by phone companies who use a button with this sign for various control functions
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your "facts" are more like misinformation.

$ is the combination of U and S- making the US the only country with its name in its currency symbol.
it was used in early government bonds, later the bottom part of the U was cut off, and in the 20th cent ppl combined the lines.

# is a pound sign- it derived from the abbreviation lb for the word libra which means pound in latin and spanish. typesetters used a special character for it â„” which is still available in our computer fonts, then it was simplified for shorthand writing.
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I find it strange that the octothorpe would combine Latin and Old Norse. Octo would be Latin for eight as compared to aett in Old Norse. Thorp or Throp means estate or farm whereas vik, wick or vich means village. I am more inclined to believe the story of the Bell Lab engineers making up this word.
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@Runa, there is no confirmed etymology for "octothorp", but the village does make sense. The symbol represents eight estates or farms surrounding the central common. Eight thorps, comprising one wick.

Whether it's unlikely that English cartographers combined Old English and Latin, I can't judge.
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Let's also not forget the spanish ˜ (tilde symbol). According to an old Linguistics professor of mine, Castillian monks who transcribed latin took double n's, (as in "anno domini") and started writing them on top of one another, like so:


eventually, the top N got squished, and became the ñ that we all know and love so well. One can test this correspondence and note that any word in latin that has "nn" in it will have ñ for its spanish equivalent. Granted, other things like consonant lenition happened over the centuries, but the n's are a good place to start.
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Robert Recorde - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Robert Recorde (c. 1510 – 1558) was a Welsh physician and mathematician. ... with the rule of equation; and the workes of Surde Nombers (London, 1557). ...

Biography - Publications - See also - Notes - Cached - Similar
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In my elementary school days in the 30s, the dollar sign had two vertical parallel lines rather than one line. It was the combination of the vertical parts of the letter U and the bottom of the letter S
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