18 June 2019


The ‘interrobang’ is both an odd word and an odd piece of punctuation.

I am surely not alone in having typed or written ?! or !? at the end of a sentence to indicate that I am both puzzled and shocked.  "The President said what?!"

The interrobang (sometimes as interrabang) combines the exclamation point with a question mark. In the jargon of printers and programmers, this is called a "bang." The glyph is a superimposition of these two marks, as shown here.

The interrobang is not a standard punctuation mark. Few modern typefaces or fonts include a glyph that you can use for the interrobang character. But it can be made in some cases.

The interrobang can be used in some word processors with the alt code Alt+8253 when working in a font that supports the interrobang, or using an operating system that performs font substitution.

You can use it with some keystrokes. In Microsoft Word, try Alt + 8253. In HTML: &#8253.  The standard interrobang is at Unicode code point U+203D will produce (size increased here for clarity)

Martin K. Speckter conceptualized the interrobang in 1962 while working as the head of an advertising agency. Ge thought that advertisements would look better if copywriters conveyed surprised rhetorical questions using a single mark.

He proposed the concept of a single punctuation mark in an article in the magazine TYPEtalks and asked for suggestions for a name for the new character. Some suggestions were exclamaquest, QuizDing, rhet, and exclarotive, He chose interrobang because  interrogatio is Latin for "rhetorical question" or "cross-examination" and bang is printers' slang for the exclamation mark.

14 June 2019

May Day, Mayday and SOS

Vulcan and Maia (1585) by Bartholomäus Spranger
First off, the month of May was named for the Greek goddess Maia, who was identified with the earlier Roman goddess of fertility, Bona Dea, whose festival was held in May.

The holiday called May Day falls on the first day of May and it is a chance to celebrate spring moving into summer. Included in the outdoor celebrations is dancing around a maypole. In Wales, this festival was connected to the May Queen (Creiddylad) and the maypole and its dance is a remnant of the old festivities.

May Day is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival and today is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and celebrated less officially in other countries.

But May Day is not to be confused with the distress call mayday which is used primarily by aviators and mariners, but in some countries local organizations such as firefighters, police forces, and transportation organizations also use the term. This term came into English in the early 1900s. It derives from the French venez m'aider, meaning "come help me".

The call is always given three times in a row ("Mayday Mayday Mayday") to distinguish an actual Mayday call from a message about a Mayday call. (Making a false distress call in the United States is a federal crime.)

The Mayday call sign originated in 1923 with Frederick Stanley Mockford who was a radio officer at Croydon Airport in London. He thought, especially because much of the traffic at the time was between Croydon and Le Bourget Airport in Paris, that "mayday" from the French would be understood by both sides since it was taken from the French m'aider ('help me'), a shortened form of venez m'aider ('come and help me').

While ships can also  issue a mayday radio call, originally the Morse code "SOS" was the more common distress signal. "SOS" does not mean Save Our Souls or Save Our Ship as I was once told. It was adopted in 1905 by German ships for signifying distress. The British working with Marconi radio operators wanted to keep CQD (General Call Disaster though sometimes translated as Come Quick Disaster) as a distress signal.

It was first suggested to use SOE, but the small "E" dot in Morse code can easily be lost. The suggestion was then to use SOS, which was adopted at the Berlin Radiotelegraphic Convention in 1906 as the official international standard for distress calls. The first time the SOS signal was used in an emergency was on June 10, 1909 when the Cunard liner "SS Slavonia" wrecked off the Azores.

11 June 2019

Prius (automobile)

2019 Toyota Prius 
The Toyota Prius is a full hybrid electric automobile developed by Toyota and manufactured by the company since 1997.

When Toyota was namining the world's first mass-produced hybrid vehicle, they wanted a name that would connect to it being groundbreaking and the predecessor of the cars of the future. They turned to latin and chose "prius," meaning "first," "original," or "to go before."  It is the root of our modern word "prior."

An odd controversy surrounding the name emerged when people wanted to refer to more than one of the cars. What is the correct plural form?

The two leading contenders were "Prii" and "Priuses." Toyota initially said the plural was "Prius" (like moose or deer). But in February 2011, Toyota USA asked the US public to decide on what the most proper plural form of Prius should be. The choices included Prien, Prii, Prium, Prius, or Priuses. "Prii" was the most popular choice, but it was close - “Prii” received 25% but “Prius” came in a close second with 24%.

Technically, in Latin, the plural of “Prius” is actually “Priora” or “Priores.” (Latin assigns gender to nouns. “Priores” is the feminine plural, while “Priora” would be the neuter plural form.) Priora is a brand name used for a Russian automobile, the Lada Priora in 2007.

And don't be surprised if you still hear people use "Priuses" as the plural in English.