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FOUR ADJECTIVES IN SEARCH OF A TYPOGRAPHER

AS DESCRIBED IN yesterday’s adjectival tidbit, ironic, sardonic, sarcastic, and satirical commentaries are frequently encountered these days. Thus, shouldn’t we have typography to identify their presence? Sort of like “?” to indicate a question, “!” to show exclamation, or “‽,” the interrobang, for emphatic disbelief. As an example, see “Can That Be Presidential‽”

Fortunately, there’s a book that offers typographic suggestions in this regard.

Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters has made appearances here at SimanaitisSays with regard to the interrobang, the octothorpe, #, and the ampersand, &. He also devotes a chapter to “Irony and Sarcasm,” with historical citations for their uses and suggested typographic indicators for their presence in writing.

Houston begins with a definition: “At its heart, irony is the presence of a second, contradictory meaning within a situation or expression.” Then he shares details of irony in history.

John Wilkins was an Oliver Cromwell brother-in-law, but don’t hold that against him. Nor did his belief that there were extraterrestrials on the moon deter him from being named first secretary of Britain’s Royal Society.

Talk about ironic.

John Wilkins, 1614–1672, Anglican clergyman, polymath, natural philosopher, author, one of the founders of the Royal Society.

In 1668, Wilkins wrote An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, in which he proposed a universal language for communication among the world’s scholars. His idea was to replace Latin, then the international language for more than 1000 years.

Irony evidently being known even back then, Wilkins proposed ¡, an inverted exclamation point, as its indicative punctuation.

“Odds bodkins, me thinks ’tis a tastie fruitcake here¡”

Almost 200 years later, Jean-Baptiste-Ambroise-Marcellin Jobard came along with another typographic indicator of irony. Houston notes that surveyor Jobard had “pinballed around the Low Countries of Europe for a decade, coming to rest in Brussels in 1819 as a naturalized Dutch citizen.”

Jean-Baptiste-Ambroise-Marcellin Jobard, 1792–1861, French-born Belgian-residing naturalized-Dutch lithographer, photographer, and inventor.

Houston observes, “Clearly exasperated with the turbulent politics of Europe’s ‘long nineteenth century,’ Jobard had found it necessary to invent a mark to give his full voice to his ire.”

Jobard’s point d’ironie, a sort of triangle-with-a-tail Christmas tree, was to be placed at the beginning and end of an ironic passage.


Jobard’s point d’ironie is timeless. Image from huffingtonpost.com.

A reversed question mark,⸮, was proposed by French poet Marcel Bernhardt, aka Alcanter de Brahm, in his 1899 book L’Ostensoir des Ironies, The Monstrance of Ironies. Houston cites Alcanter describing his preferred point d’ironie as “taking the form of a whip.”

“Trust the Saudis with nuclear weapons? Of course⸮”

Other Ironic Options. Over the years, other irony indicators have been ginned up, generally without much adoption. In 2003, for example, Keith Waterhouse, a columnist for the Baltimore Sun, recalled that his newspaper’s “language guru H.L. Mencken once proposed a special typeface to be called ironics, facing the opposite direction from italics, to indicate that the writer was trying be funny.”

H.L. Mencken, 1880–1956, American journalist, satirist, and scholar of English.

But maybe Mencken was just being ironic in this proposal?

Ironic Alert ; ) Perhaps there’s a Bertrand Russellesque quandary in any attempt at ironic punctuation. Houston cites Wayne C. Booth, Professor Emeritus of English, University of Chicago, on this point: “Booth goes on to suggest that any reader encountering such a mark would be faced with a dilemma: Does the mark genuinely signal an ironic statement, or is the mark itself being used ironically?”

Maybe it’s best to leave ironic, sardonic, sarcastic, and satiric appreciation to the mind of the beholder. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

6 comments on “FOUR ADJECTIVES IN SEARCH OF A TYPOGRAPHER

  1. Mark W
    November 25, 2018

    Me thinks if the irony is not obvious (or at least visibly peeping from behind the words) that having a symbol would be embarrassing. Like “insert laugh here”…

  2. jlalbrecht64
    November 25, 2018

    The picture of Trump going up the steps of Air Force One with toilet paper stuck to his shoe is precious. Symbolic and hilarious almost to the point of farce.

    A point that is maybe not so obvious: Trump is surrounded by people 24/7. Someone, almost assuredly multiple people, saw that toilet paper after he came out of the restroom. No one told him about it. What does that say about what everyone around him thinks of him?

    • simanaitissays
      November 25, 2018

      Maybe we are not alone after all.

      • jlalbrecht64
        November 25, 2018

        Exactly. I get a chuckle thinking about Secret Service agent #1 who sees his fellow agent leaning forward from his post to inform Trump about the tell-tale TP. Agent #1 reaches to grab the elbow of agent #2 (pun intended). #1 makes eye contact with #2. Shakes his head slowly and says just above a whisper, “Dude. Don’t say anything.”

      • Mark Williamson
        November 25, 2018

        They’ve already had to hire extra late-night comedians to handle the volume of work that Trump generates. We – twitch-twitch – just have to force ourselves to look on this as the start of a new golden age of comedy and reason…… I hope…

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