The Loveliest Living Fossil

The ocean of ideas, teeming with words and numbers, is underpinned by a vast tectonic plate that’s powerfully transforming the language. It’s the force that gives rise to new continents of meaning, while it inters the remains of countless extinct species. We know its name, but we rarely think about it, and we certainly never visit. It’s just there, helping to clarify our words and numbers in an invisibly supportive way. But it’s one of the culture’s most unstoppable forces. It’s called Punctuation.

At its leading edge, punctuation is volcanically active, giving shape to concepts that move far faster than words. Anyone communicating today has seen #topics and #themes and #categories identified this way, using a symbol that was intuitively understood and replicated even before it was first called a hashtag in 2007. The symbol and its meaning are now universally recognized, transcending even the locality of language, but their use is scarcely a decade old — an astounding accomplishment for a bit of lexical fluff, when you consider that the newfangled OMG was first recorded in 1917 (and in a letter to Winston Churchill, no less.) Similarly meteoric is the rise of @, not only in its initial evolution from grubby commercial symbol to digital thingum, but in its latest metamorphosis, which has left it poised to become a bonafide verb. Formulations like “write in or @ us on Twitter”¹¹ I owe this cheeky example to Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. You should read her blog. may seem casual, or may be arch, but since they’re easily understood by the initiated, they’re grammatical fair game. Punctuation FTW!

As it advances, punctuation leaves behind a sepulchral physical record, an ocean floor littered with the remains of creatures that didn’t make it. English-speakers who live with Imperial measurements can probably guess the meaning of ℔ from lb., but most have never encountered that symbol, and fewer still have run into a wild ℥, long since replaced by oz. (There may be pharmacists among us who know this one, but they are the same mysterous guild that traffics in ℞s and c̄s and other things that aren’t on the keyboard.) The ellipsis (…) drove out the asterism (⁂) to signal breaks in text, and the decimalized percent (%) eliminated the need for a permille (‰) — not to mention something called the “basis point,” also known as the per-ten-thousand, which naturally, and horribly, looks like this: ‱. As a typeface designer, I am not sorry to see these go. Drawing a character is one thing, but adding a character to a family that requires twenty-four variations, including an Extra Bold Compressed Italic, is another story. Especially if there are nearby lining figures and old-style figures and tabular figures to consider. So R.I.P., basis point. Or as a typographer would say, “.”

Between the symbols we live with and the symbols of yore is a third category, characters that are no longer considered ‘standard’ (by someone’s arbitrary standard), but are nonetheless still meaningful, and immediately understood. If you’ve ever addressed correspondence to someone in the care of someone else, you might have used ℅, a pretty hanger-on that I think has a place in the right kinds of typefaces, but one that should by no means be considered a typographic requirement. But the best and most active of these living fossils is a personal favorite: it’s the Numero, known to us by the monogram Nº.

Nº was the number sign before # became a number sign, and it refreshingly serves this one and only purpose. Compare the #, which when preceding a number is read as “number” (“#1 in my class”), but when following a number means “pound” or “pounds”²² If you’re curious what the # symbol has to do with the abbreviation lbs., here’s one possible missing link. (“70# uncoated paper”), leading to printshop pile-ups like “#10 envelope, 24# bond.” To programmers, a # can mean either “ignore what follows” (as in a Python comment) or “use what follows” (when referencing a page fragment, or a Unicode value in html.) To a proofreader, a # means “insert space,” so in the middle of a numbered list, the notation “line #” does not mean “line number,” but rather “add a line space.” Because of #’s resemblance to the musical symbol for “sharp” (♯), it’s a frequent stand-in for the word “sharp,” and often the correct way of rendering a trademarked term such as The C# Programming Language. The # is rapidly assuming musical duties as well, especially in online databases, leading to catalog collisions like “Prelude & Fugue #13 in F#.” How fortunate a designer would be to have a numero symbol, with which to write “Prelude & Fugue Nº 13 in F#,” or “Nº 10 Envelope, 24# bond.”

The Chicago Manual of Style unequivocally favors ‘no’ over ‘#’ when listing the issue number of a periodical: “When the issue number is given, it follows the volume number, separated by a comma and preceded by no.”³³ The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition, §17.163. And this introduces an interesting complication for Russian language periodicals, or those published in any language that uses the Cyrillic alphabet, because Cyrillic does not contain the letter N. It’s for this reason that typefaces that include Cyrillic alphabets always include the numero symbol, which is why you’ll find them in both Whitney and Gotham.

But the place you’ll find the greatest concentration of numero symbols in our library is in the Numbers collection, where I insisted upon them simply because they’re delightful. The typefaces in this collection interpret many different traditions in lettermaking, including rubber stamps, cash register receipts, railway car numbering and street signs, and in each of these environments you’ll find the numero. Many of these styles trace their origins to the nineteenth century, when numbers were more commonly introduced by Nº than #; others in the collection never used this symbol, but their styles seemed ripe for decoration. We recently had this same impluse with the Inkwell collection, which includes pen-drawn numeros in all forty-eight of its styles.

It’s this desire to decorate that shapes expectations about what should be in a typeface. On your keyboard next to the return key are the brackets [ ], and atop these are the braces { } that are sometimes — tellingly — called curly brackets. In theory, braces exist to present things on an equal footing: in music they connect staves that are played simultaneously, in genealogy they relate siblings, and in drama they group characters that move or speak as a unit (such as a nobleman’s Attendants in Shakespeare.) But braces are graphic rather than typographic forms, seldom meant to be used at the same size as the type they enclose, making them a questionable member of the character set. Frankly, they endure because they’re fetching, a spicy alternative to the humdrum geometry of square brackets, and these days they’re almost always used decoratively. Designers love to use braces, and type designers love to draw them, and it’s this unspoken bond that keeps them in the character set. Like the braces, the Nº is a reminder that typography exists to serve readers, and that readers do not live by semantic punctuation alone. There’s a place for variety and richness in typography, for colorful and engaging creatures that live at abyssal depths. Bring them up for a closer look: they’re splendid to behold. —JH

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