A Brief and Glorious History of the Interrobang
Imagine you need to write down a phone number, but you don’t have any paper handy. What would you use? Some scribble on a receipt, a napkin, or even their hands. Others repeat the number mentally until they locate a sheet of paper. It’s true; necessity is the mother of invention. In other words, people often generate creative solutions if they need something not readily available.
In 1962, the president of an advertising agency, Martin K. Speckter, found himself in need. He lacked a punctuation mark suitable to express excitement and disbelief simultaneously. Of course, exclamation points are always associated with excitement. However, what if ambiguity or doubt accompanies a strong emotion? Other writers address the issue by ending phrases with both a question mark and an exclamation point, as in the following phrase: Why do you think we need new punctuation?! Mr. Speckter saw no need to invent a new punctuation mark from scratch. Why not combine a question mark and an exclamation point? The parent punctuation marks already had one thing in common—the dot beneath them. Logically, Speckter retained this feature in the fusion of the two marks. He merged the top sections by centering the vertical line of the exclamation point through the question mark. The interrobang’s name is also a combination of two parts. “Interro-” is from “interrogative.” “Bang” is printer’s jargon for an exclamation point. Voilà, the birth of the interrobang!
The Economist explains that Speckter envisioned the interrobang adding “nuance and clarity” to rhetorical questions. In the 1960s, refrigerators that dispensed ice were new technology. Consider how punctuation changes affected his advertising copy for this refrigerator feature:
What? A Refrigerator That Makes Its Own Ice Cubes? What! A Refrigerator That Makes Its Own Ice Cubes! What‽ A Refrigerator That Makes Its Own Ice Cubes‽
Remington Rand, a former typewriter company, applauded Speckter’s creation as the modern way to signify credulity. Numerous magazines and newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, reported the new arrival. Typewriter companies began including interrobangs in their metal typefaces. Had a glorious new day dawned for writers‽
No. Like dogs described as “all bark and no bite,” interrobangs generated buzz, but without a significant impact. Writers continued to use question and exclamation marks, along with the rest of the familiar punctuation canon. Was no one brave enough to embrace the interrobang? Was this curiously incredulous symbol destined to fade into obscurity?
Speckter died in 1988, long before he could see the fate of his pet project. As recently as 2012, Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook punctuated a sentence with an interrobang in his decision on Robert F. Booth Trust v. Crowley. But interrobang usage is a rare occurrence; the symbol is relatively unknown by people outside of the writing field. Nevertheless, it’s not totally extinct. The State Library of New South Wales and Punctuate! Theatre in Alberta use interrobangs as logos.
Why did the interrobang fail to establish a foothold as a punctuation mark? No one can say for sure. Perhaps it has to do with the way language develops. To illustrate, imagine you coined a new word in an article. You couldn’t force other authors to adopt the word in their own writings. Even if people used the word for a while after you published your article, it would be difficult to predict whether the word’s usage would be enduring or just a fad. Punctuation marks are subject to the same uncertainty. Henry Denham’s question mark became widely used after the 1580s. Twitter launched the hashtag into popularity in 2006. Other proposed punctuation marks died out completely. That’s the nature of language development!
Have you fallen for the interrobang’s charms? Several fonts, such as Candara, Lucida Sans Unicode, and FreeSerif, support it. If you’d like to use it in Google Docs, click Insert and select Special Characters from the menu. Next, type “interrobang” in the search field. Decide carefully when and how you will use the interrobang. This glyph might be fun to introduce to your friends, but in some contexts it may cause more confusion than it’s worth.
The next time enthusiasm and disbelief strike simultaneously, remember all your options. You can decide between an exclamation point or a question mark. In informal settings, you can use them together. Or, if you want to conserve space, you can take advantage of the multi-functional interrobang.