The First Known Uses of 6 Common Typographic Symbols

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Many of the most common symbols on our keyboards have fascinating origin stories. Some, such as the zero, we now take for granted—yet the idea of denoting an absence of value was not present in Western mathematics until introduced from the East. Other symbols, such as the hashtag or at-sign, had a variety of uses until the internet ushered in a new way of communicating and fixed them with the meanings we know today. Below are six examples of the first known usage and subsequent history of some of the most common typographic symbols.

1. AT SIGN // @

The @ (or at-sign) is usually dated to 1536 in a letter from a Florentine merchant, Francesco Lapi, who used it to mean a unit of wine called “amphorae.” But a Spanish researcher claims to have found an even earlier usage in a 1448 document, where the symbol also referred to a unit of measurement (even today, Spaniards call the @ symbol arroba, which is also a unit of weight, and some other Romance languages have similar dual meanings). Either way, the researchers think that the symbol then moved to Northern Europe, where it eventually gained the meaning of “at the price.” Other explanations have also been offered, but whatever the exact root of the symbol, its meaning eventually became known as shorthand for at, and it was generally used in written financial transactions—for example, in noting “Bob sells James 4 apples @ $1.”

The sign had largely fallen out of use by the early 1970s, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was working at what is now BBN Technologies, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tomlinson, who was working for the government on a forerunner of the internet, was trying to figure out how to address messages sent from one computer to another when he noticed the little-used @ on his computer keyboard, and used it to send a prototype email. This precedent was soon adopted as the internet developed, and the at-sign is now, of course, central to our lives.

2. ZERO // 0

The absence of a value is a complex concept, one that many ancient civilizations struggled with. The idea of a zero ultimately came to the West from the mathematicians of India, where, as in a few other cultures, zero was initially used as a placeholder, for example to indicate a lack of units, as in the number 101.

The earliest surviving usage of a zero in India has been traced to an ancient mathematical text known as the Bakhshali manuscript, which is held at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. In September 2017, radiocarbon dating indicated that the manuscript was produced as early as the 3rd or 4th century—providing us with the first known usage of zero some 500 years earlier than previously thought. As Oxford’s Bodleian Library says, “the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today."

The manuscript itself was discovered buried in a field in 1881 in what is today Pakistan. Written on 70 delicate leaves of birch bark, historians think it represents a training manual for Silk Road traders, teaching them concepts of arithmetic.

3. HASHTAG // #

Hashtag on an old typewriter key
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The origin of the hashtag (or pound sign as it's traditionally known in the U.S.) comes from scribes writing shorthand for the Latin libra pondo, which translates as "pound by weight." The abbreviation they used was lb, which was sometimes misread as 16. So, scribes took to drawing a line through the top of the two letters, which over time developed into the now familiar #. In the 1960s, the pound sign was chosen by Bell Laboratories to be a function key on their newly designed telephone keypad. (The Bell Labs team fondly nicknamed the symbol the “octothorpe,” possibly in honor of athlete Jim Thorpe.) Fast-forward to 2007, when early Twitter users wanted to be able to group and filter their feeds, so developer Chris Messina suggested they appropriate the method used in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) whereby users employed the pound sign or "hashtag" to signpost what they were chatting about. (Programmers knew the symbol as the hash, which was now being used to "tag" content.) This simple method soon caught on, and today the hashtag has become indelibly linked to the rise of social media.

4. ELLIPSIS // …

Originally, periods of silence were marked textually with a series of hyphens, but today the symbol of choice is the , a.k.a. the ellipsis. Dr. Anne Toner of Cambridge University spent years researching the ellipsis and finally discovered what she thinks is its first use—an English translation of Roman dramatist Terence’s play Andria printed in 1588. Although the play used hyphens instead of dots, the general idea caught on rapidly. (Toner notes that although there are only four “ellipses” in the 1588 translation, there are 29 in the 1627 version.) By the 18th century, dots started to replace the dashes, which an assistant professor from Southeastern University suggests may be connected to a medieval piece of punctuation called subpuncting or underdotting, which generally indicated something was incorrectly copied.

5. AMPERSAND // &

Ampersand symbol on an old metal block
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The ampersand originated in Latin when the word et (meaning and) was written in cursive script as a ligature (in which one or more letters are written together as a single glyph). One of the earliest examples was found daubed in graffiti on the walls of a house in Pompeii, where it was preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. By the 8th century the ampersand became a recognizably distinct character, but the word ampersand did not come into use until the late 18th/19th century, when English school children would recite "and per se and" meaning “and by itself means and” to help remember the symbol (per se being Latin for "by itself"). One of the most thorough investigations into the typographic history of the ampersand comes courtesy of German graphic designer Jan Tschichold, who in 1953 published The am­persand: its ori­gin and de­vel­op­ment, in which he collected numerous examples of the ampersand from the 1st century onwards, visually charting its developing form.

6. PLUS SIGN // +

A variety of ceramic plus signs
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The plus sign used for addition in mathematics likely derives from a shorthand ligature for the Latin et meaning “and” and was probably in use for a long time before a surviving example appeared in print. One candidate for the earliest surviving usage is in French philosopher and polymath Nicole Oresme's Algorismus proportionum, a manuscript handwritten between 1356 and 1361, although scholars debate whether it's a true plus symbol. The first use of a plus sign in a printed book is more definitive, and can be found in a 1489 edition of Johannes Widmann’s Mercantile Arithmetic. Widmann also uses the minus sign for the first time in print in this volume—although both plus and minus signs relate not to addition and subtraction but to surpluses and deficits in business accounting. After this usage, the plus sign began to appear more frequently in German mathematical texts, and first appeared in an English text in 1557 in Robert Recorde’s The Whetstone of Witte—which also introduced the equals sign.

6 Grammar Lessons Hidden in Christmas Songs

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Digital Vision./iStock via Getty Images Plus

Drop these facts about the grammar in your favorite carols when you're out caroling this holiday season.

1. "Round Yon Virgin"

The Carol: "Silent Night"

The round in “Silent Night” might call up imagery of the soft, maternal kind, but in the phrase “round yon virgin,” it simply means “around.” Yon is an antiquated word for “that one” or “over there.” The meaning of the phrase in the song depends on the line before it. It should be understood in the context “all is calm, all is bright round yon virgin mother and child.” In other words: “Everything is calm and bright around that virgin mother over there and her child.” In technical terms, “round yon virgin mother and child” is a prepositional phrase.

2. "Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol"

The Carol: "Deck the Halls"

Trolling a carol might sound like some obnoxious attempt to undermine it, but it’s actually a great way to get in the holiday spirit. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), one of the meanings of troll, in use since the 16th century, is “to sing in a full, rolling voice; to chant merrily or jovially.” It’s related to the sense of rolling, or passing around, and probably came to be used to mean singing because of rounds, where the melody is passed from one person to the next. The modern, obnoxious sense of troll comes from a much later importation from Scandinavian mythology. People have increasingly been changing this line to “toll the ancient Yuletide carol” (now over 17,000 hits on Google). Don’t let the trolls win! Let’s troll the trolls by dragging this word back to the cheery side!

3. "The Little Lord Jesus Laid Down His Sweet Head"

The Carol: "Away in a Manger"

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed / The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” This line is a perfect storm of lay/lie confusion. The correct form here is laid, but it often gets changed to “lay,” and with good reason. Laid is the past tense of lay, which should be used here because the little Lord Jesus isn’t simply reposing (lying), but setting something down (laying), namely, his head.

If it were in the present tense, you could say he “lays down his sweet head.” But in the past tense lay is the form for lie. I know. It’s a rule that seems rigged just to trip people up. But here, it gets even worse, because the word right after laid is down. There’s a word ending with D followed by a word beginning with D. When you say “laid down,” it’s hard to tell whether that first D is there or not. As a practical matter, both lay and laid sound exactly the same in this context. So you can fudge it when you sing it. Just be careful how you write it.

4. "You Better Watch Out, You Better Not Cry"

The Carol: "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"

That’s right, Santa Claus is coming to town, so you better watch out. Or is it “you’d better watch out”? Many grammar guides advise that the proper form is “you’d better” because the construction comes from “you had better,” and it doesn’t make sense without the had. The problem is, it doesn’t make much sense with the had either, if you want to do a picky word-by-word breakdown.

Though the had better construction has been a part of English for 1000 years, it came from a distortion of phrases like “him were better that he never were born,” where were was a subjunctive (“it would have been better”) and him (or me, you, us) was in the dative case (“him were better” equals “it would have been better for him”). People started changing the dative to the subject case (“he were better”) and then changed the were to had.

That was all hundreds of years ago. Then, in the 1800s, people started dropping the had. The grammar books of the late 1800s tried mightily to shore up the had (some even making up a rule from nowhere that it should be would, as in “he would better”), but these days the bare form is considered correct, if a bit casual for formal contexts. Clearly, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” wants nothing to do with fancy formality. So “you better watch out” is the way to go.

5. "With the Kids Jingle Belling" and "There’ll Be Much Mistletoeing"

The Carol: "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year"

There is a lot of verbing going on in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” First, “With the kids jingle belling/And everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer,'” and then, “There’ll be much mistletoeing/And hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near.” Of course, in a song, concessions to rhythm and rhyme need to be made, and sometimes this involves making up a few words. But the practice of turning nouns into verbs is as old as English itself. Many of our verbs started when someone decided to use a noun to stand for some verbal notion related to that noun. First we had hammer, and from that we made hammering. First we had message, and now we have messaging. Oil, oiling, sled, sledding, battle, battling. The meaning of the verb is built off some context involving the noun, which could be almost anything (pounding with a hammer, sending a message, putting oil on, riding a sled, engaging in a battle). So verbs for “ringing jingle bells” or “kissing under the mistletoe” aren’t so strange at all. At least no more strange than “gifting” or “dialoguing.”

6. "God rest you merry, gentlemen"

The Carol: "God Rest You Merry Gentleman"

Notice the comma placement there? The gentlemen in this phrase are not necessarily taken to be merry already. It’s not “Hey, you! You merry gentlemen! God rest you!” It’s “Hey, you gentlemen over there! May God rest you merry!”

In Shakespeare’s time, rest you merry was a way to express good wishes, to say something like “peace and happiness to you.” Other versions were rest you fair or rest you happy. It came from a sense of rest meaning “be at ease,” which we still use in the phrase rest assured. In “God rest you merry,” you is the object of rest, so when people make the song sound more old-timey by substituting ye for you, they are messing up the original grammar because ye was the subject form.

Actually, that’s not quite true, because even in Shakespeare’s time, ye was sometimes used as the object form. However, if you want to go that way, you should be consistent with your pronouns and sing “God rest ye merry gentlemen/Let nothing ye dismay.” In the second line you is also an object, as in “Let nothing dismay you.”

So rest you merry this season, and enjoy your jingle belling, mistletoeing, and trolling.

12 Fascinating Facts About Queen Victoria

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Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

Much like Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Victoria was never expected to ascend to the British throne. Born on May 24, 1819, the young royal known as Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent defied all odds when she became Queen Victoria on June 20, 1837, less than a month after her 18th birthday.

Victoria ruled the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland for more than 60 years, and in 1876 she adopted the title of Empress of India. Victoria didn’t oversee her empire alone, though. In 1840 she married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, and together they had nine children (including Victoria’s successor, King Edward VII). Here are 12 things you might not have known about Queen Victoria.

1. Queen Victoria was born fifth in line to the throne, which made her an unlikely ruler.

Princess Victoria and her mother in 1834
Princess Victoria and her mother in 1834.
George Hayter, The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

When Victoria was born, she was fifth in line to the throne, just behind her father, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, who was fourth in line behind his three older brothers (none of whom had any living children—or at least no legitimate issue). Victoria's position in the line of succession placed her ahead of Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, her father's younger brother, which proved to be problematic.

When Victoria's father died on January 23, 1820, the future queen was barely eight months old. And when her grandfather, George III, died just a week later, the tot became third in line to the throne, which reportedly enraged Ernest Augustus. Fearing for the safety of her daughter, Victoria's mother chose to raise her away from the influence of Prince Edward's family—especially once rumors began to circulate that Ernest Augustus had designs on murdering his young niece to ensure that he, not she, would ascend to the throne. Whether or not there was any veracity to those rumors didn’t matter; on June 20, 1837, following the death of her uncle William, Duke of Clarence, 18-year-old Princess Alexandrina Victoria became Queen Victoria.

2. Queen Victoria was the first sovereign to rule from Buckingham Palace.

In 1761, Buckingham Palace was not yet a palace—it was simply a house. King George III bought the property for his wife, Queen Charlotte, to use as a family home. But when King George IV took over, he had bigger aspirations and decided to create an extravagant palace; costs ballooned to £500,000 (or more than $65 million in today's dollars). George IV died in 1830, however, which meant he never even got to live in the palace. When Queen Victoria took over in 1837, she became the first sovereign to rule from Buckingham Palace. In 1851, she was the first recorded royal to appear on Buckingham Palace’s balcony, a tradition the royal family still continues today.

3. Queen Victoria survived eight assassination attempts.

Queen Victoria sitting in a carriage car
Culture Club/Getty Images

Being in the public eye has its advantages and disadvantages, and for Queen Victoria that meant being the frequent target of assassination attempts. Over the course of her reign, she survived eight of them. In 1940, Edward Oxford shot at Victoria and Prince Albert while they rode in a carriage; Victoria, who was pregnant at the time, was thankfully not harmed. (Oxford was later judged to be insane.)

Two years later, John Francis attempted to shoot the couple not once, but twice—two days in a row. Again, neither was harmed. Just five weeks later, a teenager named John William Bean fired a pistol loaded with pieces of tobacco pipe at the Queen. In 1850, she was eventually injured when ex-soldier Robert Pate hit her over the head with an iron-tipped cane while she spent time in the courtyard of her home. Pate gave her a black eye and a scar that lasted for a long time.

4. Queen Victoria first met Prince Albert on her 17th birthday.

In May 1836, on Victoria’s 17th birthday, Prince Albert and the future queen—who were first cousins—met for the first time when Albert and his brother visited Kensington Palace with their Uncle Leopold. (Albert would turn 17 years old in August.) “He is extremely handsome,” Victoria wrote of the prince in her diary. But it would take almost four more years for the couple to tie the knot. And because royal rule stipulated that a reigning monarch could not be proposed to, Victoria had to be the one to pop the question. On October 15, 1839, Victoria proposed to Albert, who happily accepted. The couple married on February 10, 1840.

5. Queen Victoria popularized the white wedding dress.

Queen Victoria of England - Her Majesty 's wedding to Prince Albert in 1840
Culture Club/Getty Images

If you've ever wondered where the white wedding dress tradition originated, look no further than Queen Victoria. In 1840, Victoria wore an off-the-shoulder white satin gown covered in lace when she married Prince Albert. Though Victoria wasn’t the first royal to wear a white wedding dress—Mary, Queen of Scots wore white, too—wearing white became a status symbol following Victoria and Albert's nuptials.

6. Queen Victoria ensured that no other bride could replicate her wedding dress.

After Victoria’s wedding, she had the pattern to her dress destroyed so that no one could duplicate it.

7. Queen Victoria had nine children, but had some harsh opinions of motherhood.

Queen Victoria And Prince Albert With Five Of Their Children in 1846
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Nine kids is a lot, and even though the Queen had a lot of help, she at times seemed indifferent to motherhood. In personal letters, she wrote about her children, mainly about their looks. She once wrote: “I am no admirer of babies generally—there are exceptions—for instance (your sisters) Alice, and Beatrice were very pretty from the very first—yourself also-rather so—Arthur too ... Bertie and Leopold—too frightful. Little girls are always prettier and nicer.” She also said “an ugly baby is a very nasty object.”

8. Queen Victoria was fascinated by Jack the Ripper.

In 1888, the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper began brutally murdering women—mainly prostitutes—in London’s Whitechapel district. Victoria received a petition signed by the women of East London urging the Queen’s “servants in authority” to “close bad houses” a.k.a. brothels, and passed it to the Home Office. When final victim Mary Jane Kelly was killed, Victoria contacted the Prime Minister and urged that better detectives be employed.

9. Queen Victoria’s grandson was suspected of being Jack the Ripper.

Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, c1890s
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

To this day, no one knows for sure who Jack the Ripper was. However, some people have theorized that Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor was the killer. In the 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, author Stephen Knight wrote about how Victoria’s grandson might’ve contracted syphilis from a prostitute, which turned him mad. Another theory suggests the grandson secretly married a Catholic commoner and fathered a child, and it was the royal family who murdered the women to cover up the family secret. (Yes, that one seems a little far-fetched.)

10. Queen Victoria served as her grandson’s alibi.

Queen Victoria gave her grandson an alibi in her journal, thus exonerating him from accusations of being one of the world’s most famous serial killers.

11. Queen Victoria is the second longest-reigning British Monarch.

For 51 years, Victoria held the title of longest-reigning British monarch. But on September 9, 2015, Queen Elizabeth II took over the reins, so to speak, and bumped Victoria to second place. Victoria ruled for 63 years, 7 months, and 3 days; Elizabeth—who is Victoria’s great, great granddaughter—has ruled for almost 68 years.

12. Queen Victoria spent 40 years mourning the death of Prince Albert.

Queen Victoria with her great-granchildren at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, 1900
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

A couple of years before his death, Prince Albert began experiencing stomach cramps, and he almost died in a horse-drawn carriage accident. He told Victoria his days were numbered: “I am sure if I had a severe illness, I should give up at once. I should not struggle for life. I have no tenacity for life,” he said.

On December 14, 1861, Albert succumbed to typhoid fever, though some people believe that stomach cancer and Crohn’s disease were the more likely culprits. Victoria blamed their son Edward for Albert’s death, as Albert was worried about a scandalous affair Edward was said to be having with an actress in Ireland.

Victoria lived for another 40 years and mourned Albert’s death the rest of her life by wearing black, becoming a recluse (she was often referred to as the Widow of Windsor), and keeping Albert’s rooms just the way he had left them.

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