The Culture of the Interrobang The Culture of the Interrobang

The Culture of the Interrobang

by Anne Trubek

October 17, 2009

Is the combination question mark and exclamation point a sign of the times?

On Monday I discovered the interrobang, and I have been thinking about it all week. And no, not because I am a grammar nerd, but because I think ? may just sum up something about our clever yet confused culture.The interrobang is a combination of a question mark and an exclamation point. Many of us use this punctuation when we type ?!, but a real interrobang is a merger of these two symbols: ?Punctuation expresses an attitude, an idea, and slant. Often we relegate punctuation to the background, deeming it a mere convention or formality. But with each colon, we make a point: one idea explains a previous one. Cause and effect. Sometimes we signal connections between ideas; punctuation can refine relationships between points. Although words can make an impact, punctuation, clauses, and syntax do a lot of work, too.Punctuation has a history, and we can learn about our past by learning about the lives of punctuation marks. The interrobang is, I think, the only punctuation mark invented in the twentieth century.Martin K. Speckter is credited with inventing the interrobang in 1962. He was an advertising executive, and needed a better way to express rhetorical questions in his copy. He designed the punctuation, and then solicited suggestions for what to name it. He chose interrobang, which combines the Latin for question (interro-) with a proofreading term for exclamation (bang).So very Don Draper, circa Mad Men Season 2, no ?The interrobang was popular in the 1960s, and Remington added an interrobang key to some typewriters. Then it fell out of favor, and did not rise to the level of a comma, or other standard forms of punctuation.When my friend said to me, on Monday, "Do you know there is a word for ?!" I was amazed. And smitten by the little fellow (though it took some research to realize a true interrobang superimposes the question mark and exclamation point). I tweeted my new fact,  and it was new to many a follower. But then I met with some undergraduates, and to my surprise they had all heard of the interrobang. ?Is the interrobang having a revival, I wondered? Why do the young ‘uns know more about obscure punctuation than English professors and bookish types? I learned it is a popular mark in comic books, which are arguably the literary form of our age. Googling about more, I found an interrobang subculture of sorts. Did you know there  is a place that sells handbags and accessories on Etsy called "Interrobang: Young, Indie and Grammatically Correct" ?It has got me thinking, this punctuation. Might we describe our current cultural zeitgeist as surprise superimposed over curiosity,  mixed together with attitude? Is the interrobang a 1960s, type-based version of WTF?  A certain informal, witty, knowing, WTF way of approaching the world? Many clever Facebook status updates and comments could be defined, as Wikipedia does the interrobang, as "A sentence ending with an interrobang (1) asks a question in an excited manner, (2) expresses excitement or disbelief in the form of a question, or (3) asks a rhetorical question."Could the interrobang be the punctuation mark for our age? Guy Debord coined the term "Society of the Spectacle" to describe the late 1960s, and slacker took off to define the 1990s. Might we use the interrobang for ourselves?? Aren't we at once curious and cynical, world-weary yet bemused, and always pretty darned informal?One of the most talked-about TV shows of the past few years is about advertising executives in the early 1960s. These are the guys who put ? on the keyboard. Is the interrobang why we love Mad Men so?
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The Culture of the Interrobang