It's national punctuation day! In his new book Shady Characters, Keith Houston investigates the origin and evolution of such punctuation marks as the asterisk (*), the dagger (†), the at sign (@), the pilcrow (¶), and the octothorpe (#). But it is the quest of a father and son to invent a symbol for sarcasm that will live in infamy.
The irony mark’s inconstant digital existence, begun with the abortive importation of the temherte slaq and sustained by a succession of futile pretenders, has most recently borne witness to one particularly determined project that almost—almost—cracked the problem. Outstripping the ironieteken, the temherte slaq, and their kin by far is the most remarked and reviled irony mark to date. The rise to infamy of the “SarcMark”® is unparalleled in the history of punctuation.
When a seasoned type foundry such as Underware can fall foul of unintended consequences of the kind engendered by a pair of juxtaposed ironieteken, it might be concluded that creating a new mark of punctuation is not for the typographically inexperienced. This did not deter the father-and-son team of Paul and Douglas J. Sak, of Shelby Township, Michigan—respectively an engineer and an accountant by trade—from not only designing a new sarcasm mark but also submitting a patent of its design and charging for its use.
The Saks’s plan for their “SarcMark” was a deadly serious, long-term endeavor. Working in secret, the Saks registered the domain name SarcMark.net in June 2008 and filed a patent application for a “font for a punctuation mark” the following month; having announced their invention publicly in January 2010, an application to register the term “SarcMark” as a trademark was lodged shortly thereafter. The Saks were leaving nothing to chance.
As described on SarcMark.net, the case for the SarcMark was couched in much the same language as those of previous marks (ALL CAPS are from the original piece):
With the spoken word, we use our tone, inflection and volume to question, exclaim and convey our feelings. The written word has question marks and exclamation points to document those thoughts, BUT sarcasm has NOTHING! In today’s world with increasing commentary, debate and rhetoric, what better time could there be than NOW, to ensure that no sarcastic message, comment or opinion is left behind[.] Equal Rights for Sarcasm—Use the SarcMark[.]
Resembling an @ or a reversed 6 with a point in the middle, the SarcMark was intended to be of roughly the same size as existing glyphs, and included a point because of its presence in other terminal punctuation marks such as the question mark and exclamation point. Like Underware’s ironieteken, the SarcMark was available for download in a digital font; unlike the ironieteken, however, this font came at a price. The right to use the SarcMark for noncommercial purposes could be bought for the price of $1.99, with business users asked ominously to email the Saks directly.
It is safe to say that the creators and supporters of other irony and sarcasm marks were not amused. Or perhaps they were.
Initial news reports of the character’s creation were respectfully factual (“Sarcasm punctuation mark aims to put an end to email confusion,” said The Daily Telegraph; “Hitting the mark with sarcasm,” wrote The Toronto Star, but as news reports multiplied, the cynics weighed in. Almost every aspect of the SarcMark succeeded in riling one commentator or another. Its visual design was flawed, as the gadget and electronics website Gizmodo Australia opined in an article that started as it meant to go on:
SarcMark: For When You’re Not Smart Enough to Express Sarcasm Online
[...] for $US1.99 you get to download the symbol, which looks like an inverted foetus, and use it to illustrate your fantastic control over the English language every time you go online (insert Sarcmark).
Others, echoing the hoary criticism that irony marks were unnecessary in the first place, argued that writers must convey sarcasm well or else avoid it entirely. Tom Meltzer of The Guardian covered the creation of the mark in a story written entirely in the sarcastic register, and concluded tartly:
The real breakthrough of Sarcasm, Inc is the realisation that, despite having used sarcasm and irony in the written word for hundreds of years, humans are simply too stupid to consistently recognise when someone has said the opposite of what they mean. The SarcMark solves that problem, and you can download it as a font for the reasonable price of $1.99 (£1.20). Our prayers are answered.
Neither was the backlash confined to opinion pieces. A scant month after the Saks had sent out their first press releases, the mock-revolutionary website of the “Open Sarcasm” movement appeared, calling for the SarcMark to be blacklisted in favor of the tried and tested inverted exclamation mark, or temherte slaq. Affecting a militant stance against the “greedy capitalists of Sarcasm, Inc.,” the site declared:
A spectre is haunting the internet—the spectre of Open Sarcasm.
Of late, certain capitalist forces have brought forth onto the internet the idea that sarcasmists everywhere must license and download their proprietary new “punctuation”—called the “SarcMark”®—in order to clarify sarcasm in their writing.
A growing chorus of voices has joined together to decry this idea. It is high time that Open Sarcasmists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Open Sarcasm with a manifesto of the punctuation itself. [...]
SARCASMISTS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!
The rapid appearance of an entire website dedicated to the “forcible overthrow” of the SarcMark was the very embodiment of Internet activism: a deadly serious message inveighing against the rise of capitalism over collectivism; proprietary designs over open standards; intellectual property over free speech; and all delivered with a healthy undercurrent of knowing humor.
All this, though, is perhaps to miss the point. Despite the righteous fury leveled at it from all quarters, the SarcMark had already broken into the rarefied atmosphere of the mainstream media, something that no other new punctuation mark since the interrobang had managed. Which other irony mark could claim to have received coverage in the New York Daily News, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and at ABC News? Unfortunately for the Saks, this media bonanza gave the lie to the old maxim that no news is bad news: it was difficult to find anything but bad news about the SarcMark, and needless to say, the legally unsinkable symbol was nevertheless holed below the waterline almost as soon as it was launched.
Even after these successive near misses, the irony mark (and, for that matter, the sarcasm mark) remains an elusive beast. Of the myriad ways in which irony and sarcasm have been represented over the centuries, today the unasked-for burden rests squarely on the shoulders of the winking smiley. Easy to type, intuitive, and ubiquitous enough for an opportunistic Russian entrepreneur to claim to have trademarked it in 2008, this sly descendant of Scott E. Fahlman’s original emoticons is surely the definitive irony mark. Case closed ;)
Excerpted from Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks by Keith Houston. Copyright © 2013 by Keith Houston. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.