Paul Ford at ftrain has created (for his first post since February!) a very enjoyable Unicode table “for people who like looking at characters; you can click on the number below each character to visit its Wikipedia page. Surprisingly many symbols have their own pages.” Just move the sliders (x100 x1,000 x10,000) at the top to access whatever part of the system you want. Enjoy!


  1. Max Pinton says

    I hope I’m not stating the obvious, but if you have OS X you can get a similar browser under Edit > Special Characters. I think it’s a little nicer because it groups glyphs into a hierarchy (for example, Symbols > Currency Symbols), and shows related characters and which of your installed fonts contains the selected glyph.

  2. My God. Thank you, Max Pinton! I had no idea.

  3. The OS X system is great for browsing, but it’s extremely clunky if you want to do anything simple. For example, to insert an α into a piece of text I need to do the following:
    1. Open the “Fonts” window
    2. Search for the symbol that looks like a wheel near the bottom left, and select it.
    3. Select “Characters…” in the sub-menu that appears.
    4. Move the slider at the left up and down until I find “European scripts”.
    5. Press the triangle to open it.
    6. Select “Greek”.
    7. Move the slider at the right until I find a lower-case α.
    8. Select it.
    9. Select the font.
    10. Press the button “Insert with font”.
    11. Close the “Characters” window (so that it doesn’t cover up my document, because as long as its open it stays on top of anything else).
    If I then want to insert a mathematical symbol I need to go through the whole perfomance again. I won’t find mathematical symbols other than greek letters in the “Greek” list, and they aren’t under “European scripts”, either. Logical, certainly, but for people who need to type mathematics practicality has been sacrificed on the altar of logic.
    Under pre-OS-X systems it was much easier, and I could insert frequently needed characters like α with a single key-stroke. (No use for typing text in Greek, of course, because then you don’t just need α but the whole alphabet, complete with the huge range of diacritical variants that Greek has.)
    When I want to type a Russian word (something I mainly do in this blog) I don’t bother with all that ritual but instead look for something in Russian that Mr Hat has typed and then search for the letter I want. That may sound cumbersome, but it’s less cumbersome than doing it the Apple-approved way. For typing mathematics I generally search for the character in something I’ve typed already.

  4. I agree it’s a bit clunky. But you seem to be going through too many steps.
    I presume that’s an alpha you typed….α…. but can’t be sure.
    Anyway, I just open “Character palette” (which is included in the drop-down menu for input methods), choose “All characters”, go to European Scripts, open it, go to Greek and scroll down to alpha. After that you just press insert to insert it into your document. (You can choose a font if you want).
    For foreign languages, if you are going to do much typing in them, it is probably easier to enable the input method (e.g. Russian), then open the keyboard viewer. If you only want one or two characters this is a lot of hassle, but if you’re typing whole sentences it is probably a quicker way to do it than playing around with the character palette.

  5. Bathrobe: you are right. That’s one of the advantages of making a silly comment in a blog: if it’s really silly someone will point it out.
    I was vaguely aware of the procedure you describe for displaying the character palette, but have very rarely used it. I probably need to activate it that way more often.
    However, it only avoids some of the steps, and remains pretty clunky if you want to type a mixture of roman, greek, mathematical and logical symbols into a formula. (Actually in the last couple of years I’ve taken to using LaTeX for that sort of thing, so the problem no longer arises in documents that originate with me, but it’s still a problem when I need to modify a Word document written by someone else.)

  6. Rubber Bathrobe says

    I’ve heard of LaTeX but never used it. What is it useful for (in the real world — I can never figure out what things are used for from abstract descriptions on the Internet)?

  7. What is it useful for
    LaTeX is the standard for mathematical formula markup. It’s how you make a formula appear in Wikipedia, for example.
    Other former math majors of the sharpened pencil generation may be amused to note that LaTeX is one of the accepted formats for 18.901 homework (one of the earlier real math courses on the math major track, still using Prof. Munkres—from whom I took it—’s textbook).
    (I notice that the Wikipedia page for LaTeX does not mention Scribe, though the Scribe page mentions LaTeX. I know it’s probably a bit unfair to both Leslie Lamport and Brian Reid of me to think of LaTeX as Scribe with \ for @.)

  8. I’m impressed (and comforted) that all of you use macs.

  9. I remain stubbornly Mac-free, but of course Windows has a character browser too, though I almost never need to use it thanks to my Moby Latin keyboard driver (honk, honk).

    Since Lamport has said he was a Scribe user when he designed LaTeX, I don’t think it insults either him or Reid to point out the resemblance.

  10. For typing IPA on the Mac, there can be no better interface than the free IPA Palette. It’s a clickable IPA chart.

  11. For heavy use, I would warmly recommend looking into a custom keyboard layout entirely. (I have a homemade one that crams in Grηk, ӄyrillic, mɔsʈ of IPA, sᴍallcaᴘs and sĩmilạr Łatin exẗenſions, and ass♢rted ☯ther kitch∈n s↑nks.)

    …although the character palette now includes a “favorites” pane, which removes many of the cases of hunting for a specific symbol and probably makes having to memorize combos involving multiple dead keys overkill.

  12. That’s precisely what Moby Latin is (though for Windows, not the Mac): a custom keyboard layout. (It goes slightly beyond Latin to include accentless Greek.) It is for the U.S. physical keyboard; the UK-keyboard variant is called Whacking Latin and comes in four flavors: Whacking John for mostly English, Whacking Taffy for Welsh, Whacking Mick for Irish, and Whacking Sandy for Scots Gaelic.

  13. If one is familiar with Kirshenbaum or X-SAMPA, the encodings of IPA in ASCII that people made do with on Usenet around the turn of the century, an input method based on one of those encodings is more intuitive and much faster than any other way of inputting IPA. If you tend to always have an emacs open C-u C-\ ipa-x-sampa RET will make the corresponding input method available within it, and then you can copy and paste from there.

    There are some X-SAMPA-based Linux X11 input methods, but I’m not aware of any on macOS or Windows. I’ll write them (with Kirshenbaum alternatives) if people are interested.

  14. (Input methods are the limited software programs that people typically use to input Chinese characters in East Asia, where the mapping from the c. 100 keys on the keyboard to the c. 6,000 characters that need to appear in one’s documents is not usually an easy decision.)

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