or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, February 09, 2009

No Smiley

Maybe my sense of humour is impaired. I mean, I laugh at funny things, but when something is presented straight-faced, when it's subtly ironic or sarcastic, sometimes I miss the point and take it at face value.

Is that what I'm doing here? Is the writer being funny? Am I really missing it?

First, have a look at this:

It's from a recent Boingboing piece called Emoticon from 1862?

And then the Boingboing article quotes a writer as saying this:

Bryan Benilous, who works with historical newspapers at Proquest, said the team felt the “;)” after the word “laughter” was an emoticon, more than a century before emoticons became a widespread concept.

Could it be? Was this just a typo, a mistake, or was the reporter, transcriber or typesetter having a bit of sly fun?

Since it's self-evidently none of the above, all I could think was, "Okay, you've got to be kidding me, right?" Because how could any even halfway-intelligent person seriously think that that juxtaposition of two punctuation marks was an ur-emoticon?

Let's look at the evidence. The phrase "applause and laughter" starts with a parenthesis. It also ends with a parenthesis. They form a set. In this context, you never see one without the other. A quick scan of the text supplies no other closing parenthesis to match the opening one: therefore, the two belong together.

Now, what about that semicolon? It represents a pause in speech, a longer one than a comma alone. Since what we're looking at as a transcription, a moment's thought will suggest that the transcriber wishes to indicate that the speaker paused during the applause and laughter. Nowadays we wouldn't use a semicolon in a transcription to notate such a thing (we'd probably use a paragraph break), nor put a free-floating punctuation mark just before a closing parenthesis, but common sense might reasonably lead us to think that that's just what the original writer did.

And finally, what about that space between the word "laughter" and the semicolon? Again, something that isn't done these days, but some languages (such as French) place a space before certain punctuation marks as a typographic convention. For example, look at these sentences from the French Wikipédia page for "Typographie":

Cependant, dans un texte encyclopédique, il est d’usage d'éviter les abréviations. On écrira alors « Le docteur Folamour a reçu monseigneur Don Camillo. » ou encore « Maître Corbeau sur un arbre perché tenait en son bec un fromage. ».

Those little paired-arrow things are opening and closing quotation marks, and, as you can see, they have a space before and after them.

English used to do the same thing with certain punctuation marks such as the semicolon*, not unlike the way in which, in the typewriter era, two spaces were inserted instead of one after a period.

Even if you didn't know this last bit, the first part is self-evident and the second will easily suggest itself after even the briefest of consideration. So why on Earth would someone seriously contend that the modern emoticon was in use several years before the first commercially available typewriter?

Obviously I'm just not in on the joke.

* I didn't just pick that page at random, of course. It contains the following relevant passage:

Le Code typographique impose parfois des spécifications différentes du Code dactylographique enseigné dans les écoles de secrétariat. Ainsi, le Code dactylographique impose de ne jamais avoir d’espace entre la dernière lettre d’un mot et le signe typographique qui la suit, tandis que le Code typographique demande d’y intercaler une espace protégée fixe lorsque le signe est une ponctuation double, de la hauteur d'un caractère (; : ? ! % etc.), pour des raisons de lisibilité en chasse variable (le procédé diminue au contraire la lisibilité en chasse fixe si l’espace protégée fixe est remplacée par une espace justifiante).

This tells us, to paraphrase, that in typing, one no longer uses a space before a punctuation mark, whereas in typesetting, for purposes of readability a space is to be inserted for tall punctuation marks such as the semicolon, the question mark, and so on.


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