Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The long history of *

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The site Shady Characters has an interesting post that begins:

The as­ter­isk is old. Really old. Gran­ted, it is not 5,000 years old, as Robert Bring­hurst claims in the oth­er­wise im­pec­cable Ele­ments of Ty­po­graphic Style1 (Bring­hurst con­fuses it with a star-like cunei­form mark that rep­res­ents “deity” or “heaven”2), but it has more than two mil­len­nia un­der its belt non­ethe­less. I go into greater de­tail in the Shady Char­ac­ters book, but the abridged ver­sion of the as­ter­isk’s ori­gin story goes something like this.


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In the third cen­tury bce, at Al­ex­an­dria in Egypt, a lib­rar­ian named Zen­odotus was was strug­gling to edit the works of Homer into something ap­proach­ing their ori­ginal form. I say a lib­rar­ian, but really Zen­odotus was the lib­rar­ian, the first in a long line to be em­ployed at Al­ex­an­dria by the Ptole­maic pharaohs.3 Many spuri­ous ad­di­tions, de­le­tions and al­ter­a­tions had been made to the Odys­sey and Iliad since the time of their com­pos­i­tion, but Zen­odotus lacked the tools to deal with them. As such, he star­ted draw­ing a short dash (—) in the mar­gin be­side each line he con­sidered to be su­per­flu­ous, and, in do­ing so, in­aug­ur­ated the field of lit­er­ary cri­ti­cism.4 Named the ob­elos, or “roast­ing spit”, in the sev­enth cen­tury Isidore of Seville cap­tured the es­sence of Zen­odotus’s mark when he wrote that “like an ar­row, it slays the su­per­flu­ous and pierces the false”.5

The as­ter­isk, in turn, was cre­ated by one of Zen­odotus’s suc­cessors. In the second cen­tury bce, Aristarchus of Sam­o­thrace in­tro­duced an ar­ray of new crit­ical sym­bols: the diple (>) called out note­worthy fea­tures in the text; the diple per­iestig­mene (⸖) marked lines where Aristarchus dis­agreed with Zen­odotus’s ed­its; and, fi­nally, the as­ter­iskos (※), or “little star”, de­noted du­plic­ate lines.6,7 Oc­ca­sion­ally, Aristarchus paired an as­ter­isk and ob­elus to in­dic­ate lines that be­longed else­where in the poem.8

Thus the as­ter­isk was born. And right from the be­gin­ning, it came with a warn­ing: a text with an as­ter­isk at­tached to it is not the whole story.


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Hav­ing sur­vived the in­ter­ven­ing mil­len­nia with its visual form largely in­tact, by the me­di­eval period the as­ter­isk had moved into a new role as an “an­chor” for read­ers’ notes: where a reader wanted to link a note scribbled in the mar­gin to a par­tic­u­lar pas­sage in the text, a pair of as­ter­isks would do the trick. Later, in prin­ted books, au­thors used the as­ter­isk to call out their own asides.9

By the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, the as­ter­isk had be­come the de facto leader of the foot­note clan. In 1953, a lex­ico­grapher named Eric Part­ridge ex­plained that “the fol­low­ing are of­ten used”: ‘*’, ‘†’, ‘**’, ‘‡’ or ‘††’, ‘***’ or ‘⁂’ or ‘⁂’, and fi­nally ‘†††’.10 Things have calmed down a little since Part­ridge’s time, but ‘*’, ‘†’, and ‘‡’ are still re­l­at­ively com­mon and even ‘§’, ‘||’ and ‘¶’ ap­pear on oc­ca­sion. Should a writer’s pen­chant for foot­notes ex­tend past five or six per page, lettered or numbered notes may be a bet­ter op­tion and, in­deed, the fre­quency of ty­po­graphic foot­note mark­ers does seem to have waned over the past few dec­ades.


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Yet even as the as­ter­isk is used less of­ten as a foot­note marker, its im­plied mean­ing — that there is more here than meets the eye — is as strong as ever. For Amer­ican news­pa­pers, merely to use the word “as­ter­isk” is to tar­nish its sub­ject by as­so­ci­ation; for Amer­ican sports writers, doubly so.

It all goes back to 1961, and a base­ball es­tab­lish­ment un­will­ing to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 December 2020 at 7:22 am

Posted in Daily life, History, Writing

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