Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Splat By Another Name

Asterisks are such funny little things. The name comes from Latin and Greek and means "little star."

It was created at the ancient Library of Alexandria but punctuation wasn't standardized until the invention of printing. And the main reason for the use of punctuation was to clarify syntax, or laying out the rules governing sentence structure. Boring, right?

But this is cool—in the 19th century a writer named Cecil Hartley wrote a poem illustrating how punctuation is used to clarify spoken text:
The stop point out, with truth, the time of pause
A sentence doth require at ev'ry clause.
At ev'ry comma, stop while one you count;
At semicolon, two is the amount;
A colon doth require the time of three;
The period four, as learned men agree.
It doesn't say anything about the asterisk of course, but it was fun to read.

One of the asterisk's early uses in feudal times was to indicate the date of birth on family trees. And I bet you didn't know that asterisks are usually five-pointed in sans-serif typefaces and six-pointed in serif ones.

It's such a useful little mark. I'm mostly familiar with its use in typography, but it seems every field has their own use for it. In music notation it tells when the piano's sustain pedal should be lifted. In human genetics it's used to indicate someone's a member of a haplogroup and not any of its subclades. (Wikipedia lists a whole bunch of other uses if you have nothing better to do with your time.)

The asterisk has been a mainstay in the comic world, and nowadays it's used to briefly correct mistakes in our already brief social media posts.

Well, now you're so much smarter than you were five minutes ago.