The ⋮ Key.

Keith Hou­s­ton writes the blog Shady Char­ac­ters, about “the stor­ies be­hind dif­fer­ent marks of punc­tu­ation” (I welcomed it back in 2011), and he’s also published a book on the topic (LH). A few years ago he did a post on an obscure and fascinating symbol:

Com­puters are not type­writers: this is evid­ent. Even so, it’s easy to for­get that Chris­topher Latham Sholes’ mech­an­ical mar­vel was the well­spring of the QWERTY, QWERTZ, AZERTY and sim­ilar key­boards we use to in­ter­act with our laptops, tab­lets and smart­phones. Sholes and his in­ven­tion play sup­port­ing roles in the Shady Char­ac­ters book, too: the type­writer helped pop­ular­ise the @-sym­bol even as it sav­aged the em and en dashes, but there was al­ways one sym­bol on Sholes’ em­bryonic QWERTY key­board that I never quite got to grips with. Take a look at the left­most key on the third row of Sholes’ key­board, as shown in his 1878 pat­ent for “Im­prove­ment in type-writ­ing ma­chines”. What on earth is that? Or rather, what on earth is this: ‘⋮’?

He did some investigation which led to Morse code; Thomas A. Fine of Sentence Spacing (which promotes the argument “that wide spacing is a perfectly valid style choice, and at most that two spaces are the more functional logical choice for our modern world,” to which I say “amen”) was inspired to carry out his own in­vest­ig­a­tion into the “ver­tical el­lip­sis,” which turned up an instance of the mark being used as a line separator:

This leads me to the following working theory. Sholes, or one of his testers, wanted a vertical bar character on the typewriter for situations like this one, with a bibliography. It could be useful for borders and other things too. But the typography of that first typewriter was stone simple. It was a sans serif font, and the letter “I” was already a vertical bar. Given that Sholes doubled up “1” and “I”, there’s no point in adding a relatively obscure symbol that was identical. To be useful it would have to look different than an “I”. So Sholes simply used an existing alternate form. Later, when it turned out to be less useful, it was changed to a slash which carried the same function, but could also be used to write fractions, and the percent sign, and to double up with “c” to make “¢”, as well as a number of abbreviations common in that era that used a slash.

Hou­s­ton responded in Miscellany № 71 — ‘⋮’ redux, singling out Fine’s image of a line of typing produced by Mark Twain’s daugh­ter Susie:

As a ex-com­pos­itor, Twain would have been quite at home with un­com­mon marks such as the pil­crow (¶), double dag­ger (‡) and man­icule (☞) — as per the ed­it­ors of his col­lec­ted let­ters, he used these and other marks in his cor­res­pond­ence — but the ‘⋮’ never ap­peared again. Even if he knew what the mark meant, evid­ently, he never saw the need to use it. So near, and yet so far! Who would have been bet­ter than Mark Twain to en­lighten us as to the mean­ing of the ‘⋮’?

It’s a lot of fun, and I recommend reading the whole sequence. And as lagniappe, I’ll link to a new Log post by Victor Mair that begins:

Note from June Teufel Dreyer: “Driving around Coconut Grove [Miami neighborhood] to admire old houses on back streets, [daughter] Elizabeth [Dreyer Geay] and I saw one with a plaque on the perimeter wall that read ‘Maison d’Etre'”

(You can see a couple of images at the link.) I am bemused to report I had to read the whole post to get the pun; somehow my mind wasn’t connecting to the obvious phrase.


  1. I didn’t get maison d être either. It doesn’t rhyme for me, as I have an anglicised FACE vowel in raison d être but ~DRESS in maison.

  2. @ mollymooly, same here.

    There’s a pun comment on Victor Mair’s post about

    a flower shop in Edinburgh called Bloemen Ecke. I have only ever wondered how and why they managed to mash Dutch and German together that way.

    But besides Dutch and give or take some spelling it’s also plattdeutsch, see here for the famous Hamburg Low-German gardens Planten un Blomen.

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    They could have used Bloemenhoek, but this looks hard to pronounce and like a place in South Africa (or an English disparaging reference to a place -hoek).
    Re whether and when (also where in la francophonie) French ai represents a closed or open sound, this is what Germans call ein weites Feld and one about which marie-lucie might choose to enlighten us.

  4. The joke in Bloemen Ecke is that it is supposed to sound like “bloomin’ heck” while meaning “flower corner.” “Bloemenhoek” would be more linguistically consistent, but would lose the pun.

  5. John Cowan says

    Of course we here in the New Netherlands have plenty of placenames in -hook, from Red Hook in Brooklyn to Sandy Hook across the bay in New Jersey.

  6. whether and when (also where in la francophonie) French ai represents a closed or open sound

    For me speaking English, I think the difference is that “raison d’etre” is naturalised English (especially without its circumflex) whereas not so “maison” (or for that matter “raison” tout court [!]) .

    For me speaking French, “ai” can always be /ɛ/ except verb inflection “-ai”. It can sometimes optionally be /e/ instead but I don’t know when, or care enough to learn; I just ignore the option. Checking my dictionaries, “raison” can’t be /e/ whereas “maison” can, the opposite of my English practice.

  7. Chrome uses ⋮ for what they call “customize and control” icon.

  8. Stu Clayton says

    Ha ! I’ve seen and tapped that a zillion times in Chrome, yet didn’t make the connection with the symbol in the header of this post. I think I orient myself by the position of icons more than by the icons themselves.

  9. John Cowan says

    Especially as the vertical dots (“dripper”) are more or less interchangeable with the horizontal lines (“hamburger”). Very irritating, as if the brake pedal in a car were on the tiller in one model, a rope hanging down from the ceiling in another, …

  10. The hamburger and dripper are pretty similar. It’s more as if the gear shift used uppercase “D” in one car and lowercase in another.

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    Bloomin’ ‘eck, Werner!

  12. Manual gearshifts differ in where reverse is. Always uppercase R though.

  13. Bloomin eck, Werner. Is this eine tote Katze?

  14. John, if you’d passed your driving test you’d know that pulling the rope hanging down from the ceiling causes a blast of steam and a whistle to be discharged from the chrome pipe on the wing mirror.

  15. David Marjanović says

    whether and when (also where in la francophonie) French ai represents a closed or open sound

    As far as I understand, it’s very simple: it’s /ɛ/. The trick is that not everyone distinguishes /ɛ/ from /e/, and those who do generally don’t do it in all environments. Where the distinction is gone, the result is [ɛ] in closed and [e] in open syllables.

    m-l has claimed to have a separate /æ/ for ai. I’ve seen ai used to indicate the Marseillais pronunciation of /ɛ/ as [æ].

  16. John, if you’d passed your driving test

    Actually, it wasn’t until my 40s that I had the eye surgery that would make it possible for me to learn to drive, and by that time I was firmly established in NYC, where cars are nothing but a nuisance for the owner and everyone else.

  17. Yes, having lived in cities all my life until I was in my mid-fifties, I am a hopeless non-driver.

  18. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    m-l has claimed to have a separate /æ/ for ai. I’ve seen ai used to indicate the Marseillais pronunciation of /ɛ/ as [æ].

    I was puzzled by this at first, but on reflection I do hear pain pronounced as [pæŋ] sometimes. (Most of the people I interact with don’t have strong Marseillais accents.)

  19. Most of the people I interact with don’t have strong Marseillais accents.
    You can hear it 2 mins in here

  20. Stu Clayton says

    Great doc, Crown.

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