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Brave Genius: How the Unlikely Friendship of Scientist Jacques Monod and Philosopher Albert Camus Shaped Modern Culture

“Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.”

What makes a good life, a meaningful life, a life of purpose? And how can one live it amidst pain and destruction; how can the human spirit soar in the face of crushing adversity? The meaning of life resides in the answers to these questions, which countless luminaries have been asking since the dawn of recorded time, and which an unlikely duo of Nobel-laureate friends — revered writer, journalist and philosopher Albert Camus and pioneering biologist Jacques Monod — set out to answer during one of the darkest periods of human history, the peak of World War II. In Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize (public library), molecular biology and genetics professor Sean B. Carroll — not to be confused with the cosmologist Sean Carroll, who also authors fascinating works, but of a rather different nature — tells the story of how each of these extraordinary men lived through the terrifying reality of the war and emerged as an exceptional mind of creative brilliance and humanistic genius, a story of “the transformation of ordinary lives into exceptional lives by extraordinary events — of courage in the face of overwhelming adversity, the flowering of creative genius, deep friendship, and of profound concern for and insight into the human condition.”

It was the Occupation of Paris that served, as Carroll poignantly puts it, as the “perverse catalyst” that sparked each man’s genius and propelled them into intersecting trajectories of greatness as they entered each other’s lives.

Jacques Monod’s identity card for the French Forces of the Interior (FFI), in his nom de guerre ‘Malivert.’ (Courtesy of Olivier Monod)

Camus, an aspiring 26-year-old writer working as a newspaper layout designer, and Monod, an “underachieving and, at age thirty, relatively old doctoral student in zoology,” met at a human rights event in 1939. Both had to contort their lives to avoid death — Camus by disguising his identity for security reasons with a false ID under the assumed name of Albert Mathé, and Monod by sending his Jewish wife to safety outside of Paris, also equipped with a fake ID that Aryanized her maiden name; both men joined the Resistance against the Germans, each contributing in his own way — Camus through the power of the written word in his moving editorials for the underground Resistance newspaper Combat, and Monod by joining the French armed forces, where he excelled as an officer and went on to lead the coordination of Resistance activities in the latter stage of the Occupation.

Albert Camus’s false identity card, in the name of Albert Mathé, writer. All of the information on the card — birthdate, place, parents — is false. (Courtesy of Collection Catherine et Jean Camus, Fonds Camus, Bibliothèque Méjanes, Aix-en-Provence, France)
Odette Monod’s false identification card. Odette changed the spelling of her maiden name, Bruhl, to ‘Brulle’ to conceal her Jewish identity. (Courtesy of Olivier Monod)

But they otherwise had little in common by way of upbringing or professional background. Still, they instantly hit it off and found a kindred spirit in the other. More than that, the friendship sparked an uncommon and boundlessly fruitful cross-pollination of intellectual curiosities, which would come to shape each man’s work and impact on the world. Carroll writes of their special connection:

Francis Crick described Monod in terms that applied equally well to his new friend Camus: “Never lacking in courage, he combined a debonair manner and an impish sense of humor with a deep moral commitment to any issue he regarded as fundamental.” In addition to the special bond of former resistants, Monod and Camus discovered they shared many similar concerns. Over the course of their friendship, those concerns would encompass a broad spectrum of humanitarian issues, including the state of affairs in the USSR, human rights in Eastern bloc countries, and capital punishment in France. Monod gave Camus further ammunition for his indictment of the Soviet Union, an indictment that terminated many of Camus’s friendships with left-wing peers.

Camus gave Monod access to his world of literature and philosophy.

Most impressive of all, however, was the enormity of literary and philosophical works Camus managed to publish during the Occupation, underpinned not by the desperation of a war-torn world and a lamentation of evil but, like Viktor Frankl’s timeless treatise from the same era, by a profound faith in the human spirit and our shared capacity for goodness. Carroll writes:

The terror and cruelty of the Occupation, the slaughter of tens of millions in the war (the second such war in a generation), and the horrors of the Holocaust that were coming to light had made many despair and abandon any hope for the future of humanity. Denial of any meaning or purpose in life — nihilism — was a widespread response.

But Camus vehemently rejected nihilism and took an entirely different path. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus addressed what he contended was the fundamental issue of philosophy — “judging whether life is or is not worth living.” To Camus, the crux of the matter of life was the certainty of death. The practical question that certainty prompted was: How could one live a meaningful life in full knowledge of the inevitability of death?

Camus asserted that by recognizing the reality of the physical limits of one’s life, one attained the clarity and freedom to make the most of life as it is. He reasoned that the logical response to the certainty of death was a revolt against death — a revolt that took the form of living life passionately and to the fullest: “Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum.”

Camus’s recipe for living life to the fullest was to do nothing in hope of an afterlife, and to rely on courage and reasoning: “The first teaches him to live without appeal [to religion] and to get along with what he has; the second informs him of his limits. Assured of his temporally limited freedom … and of his mortal consciousness, he lives out his adventure within the span of his lifetime.”

For Camus, even Sisyphus — condemned as he was to rolling his rock uphill each day, only to have it roll back down and to begin again — was master of his own fate. Sisyphus created meaning in his own life by deciding that “the struggle towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” Camus concluded the essay, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

This “reasoned optimism,” as Carroll puts it, resonated with readers in France as they struggled to heal from the psychological atrocities of the war. Camus, whom his close friend Jean-Paul Sartre described as “an admirable conjunction of a person, an action, and a work,” offered hope amidst hopelessness:

Camus once wrote, “In the depths of winter, I discovered that there lay within me an invincible summer.” Readers in France, and then as his works were translated, millions more readers around the world, responded to that invincible summer. Camus offered a practical philosophy for living without succumbing to nihilism or appealing to religion. In the aftermath of the great calamity, Camus offered the masses a picture of a brighter future for France and the world, an alternative to the cycle of war that had darkened a half century, and that threatened to continue. He offered a choice, as he put it, “between hell and reason.”

While Camus was contemplating the philosophical foundations of life, Monod was shedding new light on the biological. During the 1940s, before the discovery of DNA as the basic building block of life, biology was a budding science propelled by, as Carroll elegantly puts it, “simple but fundamental questions.” Enthralled by the mystery of how cells grow, Monod and his collaborator François Jacob, a nineteen-year-old second-year medical student en route to becoming a surgeon, laid the foundations for our understanding of how a single fertilized egg could blossom into a complex creature — and they did it with extraordinary taste, a concept seemingly counterintuitive and belonging more to the literary world than the scientific, but in fact essential for scientific discovery.

Like Camus, Monod also transcended the boundaries of his discipline to effect broader cultural and political awareness. After the liberation of Paris — the momentous triumph that marked the beginning of the end of WWII, which both Anaïs Nin and Ernest Hemingway recorded with exuberant relief — weapons were replaced by dueling dogmas. Carroll contextualizes the climate:

Soon after the end of World War II, a new war emerged — of ideologies. It was a war between capitalism and socialism, between democracy and Communism, and the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. In France, those along the entire spectrum of political ideologies from the far left to the far right vied for power and influence. The Communist Party enjoyed strong support, particularly among the intelligentsia and workers, many of whom looked to the Soviet Union as a model of where socialism in France should be heading.

In the summer of 1948, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, the Soviet head of agriculture appointed by Joseph Stalin, launched a concentrated attack on the science of genetics, pushing for geneticists to be purged from Soviet biology — a kind of “ideological terrorism” that flew in the face of what science knew to be true, propagated by France’s communist-owned newspapers. Appalled and infuriated, Monod eviscerated Lysenko’s arguments in an op-ed that ran on the front page of Combat — the same Resistance newspaper in which Camus had given hope and sanity a voice. Stirred by the incident, Monod was moved to “make his life’s goal a crusade against antiscientific, religious metaphysics, whether it be from Church or State.”

September 15, 1948, issue of Combat featuring Jacques Monod’s critique of Soviet biologist T. D. Lysenko and Soviet science. (Archives of the Pasteur Institute)

Unsurprisingly, given their bond and enormous overlap of convictions, Camus’s influence had a profound impact on Monod, who integrated philosophical inquiry into his biological pursuits. Carroll writes:

After receiving his Nobel Prize, Monod turned to consider the implications of the discoveries of modern biology — how the answers to Schrödinger’s question “What is life?” bore on the question of the meaning of life. He explained his impulse in Camusian terms: “The urge, the anguish to understand the meaning of his own existence, the demand to rationalize and justify it within some consistent framework has been, and still is, one of the most powerful motivations of the human mind.” The opening epigraph of Monod’s resulting, widely acclaimed, bestselling book, Chance and Necessity, was the closing passage from his friend’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

Indeed, receiving the Nobel Prize — Camus in 1957 and Monod in 1965 — while equally deserved, produced radically different responses in the two friends. When news of the philosopher’s award broke, Monod immediately sent his friend a letter of warm congratulation:

My dear Camus,

My emotion and my joy are profound. There were many times when I felt like thanking you for your friendship, for what you are, for what you managed to express with such purity and strength, and that I had likewise experienced. I wish that this dazzling honor would also appear to you, in some small part, as a token of friendship and of personal, intimate recognition. I would not dare coming to see you right now, but I embrace you fraternally.

Jacques Monod

But Camus, who feared such public attention would fuel his critics and indicate that his body of work were complete rather than ever-evolving, met the news of the prize with mixed emotions, oscillating between pride and panic. (A reaction not wholly unsurprising given the conflicted story of the Nobel Prize’s very conception.) In his journals, he noted “a strange feeling of overwhelming pressure and melancholy.” Despite his friendships with such intellectual and creative icons as Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, and George Orwell, he chose to share his feelings only with Monod, responding in a letter:

My dear Monod.

I have put aside for a while the noise of these recent times in order to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your warm letter. The unexpected prize has left me with more doubt than certainty. At least I have friendship to help me face it. I, who feel solidarity with many men, feel friendship with only a few. You are one of these, my dear Monod, with a constancy and sincerity that I must tell you at least once. Our work, our busy lives separate us, but we are reunited again, in one same adventure. That does not prevent us to reunite, from time to time, at least for a drink of friendship! See you soon and fraternally yours.

Albert Camus

But beneath the warm professional support of their friendship, there was a deeper bond that held them together, one of shared purpose. Carroll writes:

Both men were deeply engaged with timeless questions about finding meaningful experiences in life. They were forced to ask, by virtue of the experiences into which they were plunged, the most fundamental questions of all: What is worth dying for? And what is worth living for? Once free, they were compelled to ask: What is worth spending one’s life pursuing?

Brave Genius is an elevating read in its entirety, reminding us that even in a time of profound adversity, it is genius, not misery, that loves — longs for, necessitates, thrives on — company.


Janis Joplin on Creativity and Rejection: Her Lost Final Interview, Rediscovered and Animated

“You are what you settle for.”

On September 30, 1970, four days before her death, Janis Joplin gave her final interview, a profound conversation about creativity and rejection with Howard Smith of the Village Voice, found in the altogether fantastic The Smith Tapes Box Set — an archive of Smith’s restored interviews with such icons as John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Jane Fonda, James Taylor, Jerry Garcia, and more.

Smith and Joplin had been scheduled to speak in mid-August, but Janis, distraught over an eviscerating piece Rolling Stone had run about her — which included the assessment that her bountiful jewelry made her look like a “Babylonian whore” — canceled. When they eventually did speak, however, what emerged was a portrait of Joplin as a complex person brimming with the sort of inner contradictions that make us human — at once insecure yet full of conviction, opinionated yet concerned about offending, fierce yet tenderhearted.

Now, the fine folks of multimedia nonprofit Blank on Blank — who also gave us David Foster Wallace on ambition and Maurice Sendak on being a kid — have brought this bittersweet final conversation to life in their signature style of visual storytelling.

You are what you settle for. You are only as much as you settle for.

The interview was aired four days after Joplin’s death.

Complement with Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin (public library), the excellent biography of one of our era’s most influential musicians and most tragic cultural icons. Also of note is the memoir-biography Love, Janis (public library) by Joplin’s younger sister, Laura.


Ironic Serif: A Brief History of Typographic Snark and the Failed Crusade for an Irony Mark

From 17th-century France to digital emoticons, by way of kooky characters and spectacular failures.

In Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks (public library) — a wonderful addition to these stimulating reads about language — language-lover Keith Houston traces the secret history of punctuation, spanning from antiquity to the digital age, from the asterisk to the @-symbol, chronicling the strange and scintillating lives of the characters, glyphs, and marks that populate the nooks and crannies of human communication. Though many of them are familiar staples of everyday life, the most fascinating story is one of punctuational peril — the failed quest for a symbol to denote irony.

Frontispiece illustration by Edward Gorey from Felicia Lamport’s ‘Scrap Irony,’ 1961. Click image for details.

“He was a great friend of mine,” Truman Capote once said of William Faulkner, adding: “Well, as much as you could be a friend of his, unless you were a fourteen-year-old nymphet.” Without our capacity for comprehending irony, Capote’s literary snark would’ve rung hollow and nonsensical. And yet irony — along with its kin, snark and sarcasm — is an art form that thrives on the spoken word, relying on intonation and body language to distinguish it from the literal, so it’s had a particularly rocky run translating into written language. That’s precisely what Houston explores in the chapter on irony and sarcasm, beginning with a historical and linguistic backdrop:

The concept of irony got its name — though not yet an attendant mark of punctuation — in ancient Greece, where playwrights employed a cast of stock characters made recognizable by their physical characteristics, props, and personalities. One such staple of comic plays was the eirôn, a seeming buffoon who would best the alazon, his braggart opponent, by means of self-deprecation and feigned ignorance, and it was the cunning eirôn who gave his name first to the Greek eirôneia and then to the modern term “irony.”

In the ancient world, however, humorists relied on their audience’s intellect to detect the irony and didn’t find it necessary to flag it as such. But by 17th-century England, writers had become increasingly restless about pointing out irony readers might miss, and so the first documented punctuation mark denoting irony was born in 1668, the brainchild of the English vicar and natural philosopher John Wilkins — brother-in-law of the royalists’ bête noire Oliver Cromwell, one-time head of Trinity College (of which pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diaries that “in the opinion of a Cambridge man, to be master of Trinity is to be master of the world”), and eventually appointed as the first secretary of the newly founded Royal Society. Wilkins was a kooky character, who believed the moon was inhabited by aliens, proposed the construction of submarine “Arks,” invented transparent beehives that allowed for the extraction of honey without killing the bees inside, and wrote the very first book on cryptography published in English. But his most memorable accomplishment was the publication of his Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, in which he proposed, two centuries before the invention of Esperanto, a new universal language of letters and symbols — a sort of “steroidal, all-encompassing Dewey Decimal System where concepts were organized into a rigid hierarchy.” More than a mere linguistic diversion, however, Houston argues the concept bespoke the era’s growing concern with information overload:

The Renaissance had generated an explosion of information, with knowledge and ideas spreading like wildfire among an increasing literate and scientific populace. Latin, however, once the go-to language for international scholarly discourse, was in decline. More seriously, a new breed of “natural philosophers” understood that the biases and limitations of natural language in general made it an imperfect tool for communicating the new body of scientific knowledge: to Wilkins and his contemporaries, the notion of a purpose-built, universal language with which to analyze and transmit this information held a powerful fascination. Thus it was that the mid-seventeenth century saw the invention of a succession of “philosophical languages” and “real characters,” artificial taxonomies of things and concepts that were, crucially, free from the myriad complexities of linguistic evolution.

So how does the irony mark fit into all this? Houston explains:

In addition to this taxonomy, however, Wilkins strayed into punctuation and writing, and in doing so made a curious innovation: he declared that irony should be punctuated with an inverted exclamation mark (¡).

What prompted Wilkins to propose this punctuational improvement remains unknown, but we do know that he was neither the only nor the first thinker who pondered the problem. Some sixty years earlier, the revered Dutch Renaissance humanist and social critic Desiderius Erasmus, after whom Rotterdam’s prestigious Erasmus University is named, lamented the lack of punctuation for irony, observing that “irony has no place, only different pronunciation.” Whether or not Wilkins was aware of Erasmus’s musings is subject to speculation, but Houston commends the Englishman’s effort:

Regardless of his inspiration … Wilkins’s choice of the ¡ seems most appropriate. The presence of an exclamation mark already modifies the tone of a statement, and inverting it to yield an i-like character both hints at the implied i-rony and simultaneously suggests the inversion of its meaning.

And yet Wilkins’s was only one of many proposed irony marks — and the first of many famous failures to make one stick:

By the end of the seventeenth century the idea that a messy, chaotic universe could be brought to order with a manmade taxonomy had been proven quixotic, and the dream of a universal language with which to express that taxonomy had largely faded. Wilkins’s Essay, last best hope for the ill-fated universal-language movement, is nowadays regarded as a glorious failure; his little-remarked inverted exclamation point sank along with it, seemingly without trace. A fateful precedent had been set.

Nearly two centuries later, the effort was resurrected across the English Channel, where the surveyor Jean-Baptiste-Ambroise-Marcellin Jobard — an early champion of lithography and another kooky character who studied the propagation of the human voice using hundreds of feet of pipes and designed an elaborate system of gaslights to light his home — proposed a peculiar series of Christmas-tree-like glyphs to denote irony. In an October 1841 article in Le Courrier Belge, the newspaper of record in his adopted home of Brussels, where he had settled in 1819, he exorcised his exasperation over Europe’s chaotic politics:

What to say? What △ (1) when France stamps and prances impatiently to get on the battlefield, when Spain, tired of a truce of some months, again engages in civil war, Belgium remains quietly occupied by industry, trade, railways and colonization! But this is absurd.

Beneath the article, throughout which the glyph appeared several more times, a footnote (1) explained: “This is an irony point.” Houston writes:

Though his new mark went unused after this first outing, Jobard returned to the subject in a book published in 1842. Expanding his palette of nonstandard punctuation marks, he suggested that the same arrowlike symbol could be placed at different orientations to indicate “a point of irritation, an indignation point, a point of hesitation,” and mused that other symbols, yet to be invented, might be used to convey sympathy or antipathy, affliction or satisfaction, and loud or quiet exclamations.

And yet Jobard, like his English counterpart two decades earlier, failed to make his invention stick:

A great intellectual of his time, Jobard’s works are only dimly remembered within the Francophone world and have been almost wholly forgotten outside it. Fascinated by spiritualism in the latter part of his life, Jobard wrote a great deal on the subject. This obsession dominated and diminished his legacy to such an extent that it has all but disappeared. Abandoned by its maker after a brief flirtation, his irony mark has suffered a similar fate.

Eleven years later, Jobard’s lament over the lack of written equivalent to the vocal intonations of irony was echoed by none other than education icon Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but Rousseau himself didn’t propose a solution. The next crusader for an irony mark, who actually proposed a practical implementation, was the poet Marcel Bernhardt, who in 1899 devised a new symbol reminiscent of a stylized mirror-image question mark. Houston explains:

Alcanter’s point d’ironie dripped with knowing humor: in a nod to the sentiment often conveyed by verbal irony , he described it as “taking the form of a whip,” and, aware that irony loses its sting when it must be signposted in exactly the manner he was proposing, the French name for his new symbol was a pun with the additional meaning of “no irony.”

Alcanter de Brahm’s ‘whiplike’ point d’ironie, proposed in 1899

But Brahm, too, built upon the work of thinkers who predated him. Three centuries earlier, Henry Denham dreamt up the “percontation point” — a reversed question mark used at the end of rhetorical questions, of which Brahm’s later character was strikingly reminiscent. This tells us little more than that the irony mark was not destined for greatness:

Both Denham’s percontation point and Brahm’s point d’ironie fared better than Wilkins’s inverted exclamation mark and Jobard’s Christmas tree, though neither one quite made the jump to common use. Benefiting, perhaps, from the malleable standards of sixteenth-century punctuation, Denham’s percontation point puttered on for around fifty years, while Brahm’s fin-de-siècle irony mark merited an entry in the Nouveau Larousse Illustré encyclopedia, preserved behind glass, as it were, until 1960. In their respective times, neither amounted to anything more than a grammatical curiosity. The curse of the irony mark remained in force.

Hervé Bazin’s menagerie of proposed punctuation marks, including the psi-like ‘point d’ironie’

In the 1960s, however, one of France’s most prominent authors, Hervé Bazin, took it upon himself to break the curse. In his 1966 tome Plumons l’oiseau, a playful push for spelling and grammar reform, he dedicated several pages to what he termed Les points d’intonation, or “intonation points” — a solution to the same lack of nuance in written language that Rousseau had bemoaned more than a century earlier. Bazin created an entire system of symbols, including the “love point,” “conviction point,” “authority point,” “acclamation point,” “doubt point,” and his newly proposed point d’ironie, which Bazin explained thusly:

This is an arrangement of the Greek letter Ψ. This letter (psi) is an arrow in the bow, corresponding to ps: that is to say the sound of that same arrow in the air. What could be better to denote irony?

Alas, Bazin’s arrow missed the target and suffered the same fate as its predecessors, perishing in obscurity. Nearly half a century later, in 2007, the quest was resumed during the annual Dutch book festival, themed “In Praise of Folly — Jest, Irony and Satire” that year. Pan-European type foundry Underware was commissioned to create a special punctuation mark for the occasion and thus the ironieteken was born — a zigzaggy exclamation point denoting irony. But despite significant buzz across Dutch literary circles — including some criticism that, when placed in a row of several, it bore an unfortunate resemblance to the Nazi swastika — the mark quickly fizzled.

Left to right: Underware’s ironieteken as rendered in 72pt Dolly, Century Catalogue, Share, and Cardo typefaces

This raises the necessary question of what it is, exactly, that makes representing irony typographically so catastrophic. As someone who finds even the use of italics for emphasis, with very limited exceptions, a mark of weakness of style — if a writer can’t wield language in a way that produces organic emotional crescendos, how pitiful to try forcing those typographically — I see the answer as obvious: Irony thrives on an implicit juxtaposition of contextual intention and literal meaning, so as soon as we make it explicit, it stops being ironic.

Perhaps ironically, a separate crusade for a textual signifier of irony comes precisely in the form of a script — a reverse-italics typeface called Ironics, attributed to the iconoclastic journalist H. L. Mencken, who believed Americans were unable to recognize irony and thus needed a special typeface to indicate that the writer was being facetious. But Houston is careful to point out that attribution is murky and Mencken is credited with the invention of ironics more by virtue of popular myth than of historical record. In fact, Houston cites a 1982 article which identifies British journalist and politician Tom Driberg (1905-1976) as the likely originator of ironics:

Long ago the late Tom Driberg proposed that typographers should design a new face, which would slope the opposite way from italics, and would be called “ironics”. In this type-face jokes would be set, and no-one would have any excuse for failing to see them. Until this happy development takes place, I am left with the only really useful thing journalism has taught me: that there is no joke so obvious that some bloody fool won’t miss the point.

Driberg was arguably the strangest character of all irony-crusaders. Houston describes him:

Tom Driberg’s life was a mess of ironies: he was a married, gay churchman who lunched with occultists; a left-wing politician who reveled in frivolous society gossip; a patriot who spied both for his country and the dreaded KGB. It seems entirely apt for him to have proposed the creation of a typeface to invest text with a double meaning, which would be slanted the opposite way from italics, and that would be called “ironics.”

But Driberg’s public image was dragged down after his death — curiously, his Times obituary made him the very first homosexual person outed in the paper’s history — and along with it sank the dream of ironics.

Then came the internet, which changed the whole game:

The subtle shadings of verbal irony were bleached flat in the blinding glare of the new medium: what the Internet really wanted to communicate was not irony, but its laser-guided offspring, sarcasm.

As UNICODE — the definitive character library defining more than 109,000 symbols from multiple ancient and modern scripts, including Latin, Greek, Arabic, Cyrillic, Chinese, cuneiform, and more — emerged as the linguistic overlord of web characters, the quest for an irony symbol now had to abide by its rules. And so in 1999, a group of Ethiopian language geeks lobbied for the inclusion of an Ethiopian colloquialism denoting irony into the UNICODE set, writing:

Graphically indistinguishable from [the inverted exclamation point] (¡) Temherte Slaq differs in semantic use in Ethiopia. Temherte Slaq will come at the end of a sentence (vs at the beginning in Spanish use) and is used to indicate an unreal phrase, often sarcastical in editorial cartoons. Temherte Slaq is also important in children’s literature and in poetic use.

Ironically, everything came full circle as the digital irony mark returned to Wilkins’s original analog concept. Like its analog brethren, however, the proposed UNICODE character didn’t catch on. Instead, the internet embraced emoticons, which use standard UNICODE punctuation, as the textual signifier of emotional intonation. Curiously, emoticons weren’t an invention of the digital age — they originated in 1881 … but that’s another story.

The very first use of emoticons, Puck Magazine, 1881. Click image for details.

Shady Characters goes on to examine the origins, evolution, and anthropology of such typographic darlings as the hashtag, the ampersand, and the colophon. More than a mere catalog of curious trivia, it’s an absolutely fascinating blend of history, design, sociology, and cultural poetics — highly recommended.


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