Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Symbols and Marks

© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

We live in a world of symbols. Everywhere we go, we're surrounding by signs containing pictures. Now, many of us know that the symbol © means copyright, and that a faucet (tap, that is) marked red dispenses hot water while one marked blue gives cold water. Road signs indicate we should turn left or that a railroad crossing is ahead. Green traffic lights tell us to "go"; red lights tell us to maybe perhaps think about slowing down sometime soon; and yellow lights indicate "please ignore me; I'm just a holdover from the old days when drivers were responsible!"

According to Wiktionary, a symbol is "A character or glyph representing an idea, concept or object." Now who's to say which symbols represent what ideas, concepts, or objects? Of course, the mapping of symbols to meanings is simply a convention. In some cases, the symbol directly represents the object (as in a T-junction-ahead road sign) while in other cases there appears to be no such connection (think 8-sided Stop sign).

Of course, five different groups of reasonable people could easily come up with five different conventions for the same set of ideas or concepts. One obvious example of this is the diversity of writing systems. As to how one might write the English vowel sounds in other writing systems varies considerably, but no one approach is right; they are all just different conventions. Even the symbols used to represent the digits 0–9 are conventions and vary from one counting system to the next.

Many common signs truly are international. One such set is that containing a picture of a common object painted in black, on a white background, and inside a red circle with a red slash through it, which indicates that the indicated object or action is forbidden. Examples include, No Smoking Here, No Cameras Allowed, and No U-Turns Allowed. Now another common sign indicates No Parking, and although I know it as having an uppercase P in the center, I learned a valuable lesson about normal when I started travelling to Latin America. There, I kept seeing all these "forbidding" signs with an uppercase E. In that part of the world, the Spanish reflexive verb estacionarse means "to park". Hence the E instead of P. Another sign I see all over the world is WC (an abbreviation for water closet), to indicate a toilet.

In this essay, I'll discuss the non-alphanumeric symbol keys common to most typewriter and computer keyboards, I'll look at some symbols not available on a keyboard but needed in word processing, and I'll mention a few fields of learning having extensive sets of symbols. As usual, I'll be working in a USA-English context.

The QWERTY Keyboard

These days, the most common keyboard layout used in the English-speaking world is QWERTY, whose name comes from the first six letters in the top left corner, read left-to-right. [A far less common layout is Dvorak.] Let's look at the symbol keys on my PC's keyboard, going left-to-right and top-to-bottom, all of which have formal names, as shown:

  • Tilde ~ — Not commonly used in general writing, although it can mean approximately. Used by certain programming languages.
  • Grave Accent ` — Not common everyday use. Used by certain programming languages.
  • Exclamation Mark ! — Also known as an exclamation point or bang. A common punctuation character, as in, "I did not have s*x with that woman!" [Prior to the introduction of domain addresses, email addresses contained bangs.] Used by certain programming languages.
  • Commercial At @ — In days of yore, this was used when writing detailed receipts, as in "Three French Hens @ $4.25 each, Four Calling Birds @ $3.75 each, …". Nowadays, it's an integral part of any email address. However, almost every time I try to type it on a non-English keyboard, I have to figure out which three keys to press! [If you are truly desperate for something to do, following the link and read the section "Names in other languages".]
  • Number Sign # — Also known as pound sign (US), hash (British Commonwealth), and octothorpe. For example, "I hugged a stranger on the #5 bus today." Unless you have had too much alcohol to drink, it really doesn't look like the musical sharp sign. On UK keyboards, this key usually has the pounds sterling symbol £; however, that is not why the US calls it a pound sign. Used by certain programming languages.
  • Dollar Sign $ — Used primarily with dollar or peso currencies, and by certain programming languages.
  • Percent Sign % — Indicates a percentage, as in, "2.5% of serial killers have programmed in the language C". Used by certain programming languages.
  • Circumflex Accent ^ — Not common everyday use. Used by certain programming languages.
  • Ampersand & — An abbreviated form of the word and, as in "The Duke & Duchess of Huckleberry are invited to a Royal Beheading at the Tower on Saturday; BYO". Used by certain programming languages.
  • Asterisk * — Sometimes used to add emphasis to a word in email, as in, "You should **not** do that!", used as a replacement for some letters in offensive words, as in, "He's a R*p*bl*c*n", and used as a crude form of a bullet starting an item in a list. Used by certain programming languages to indicate multiplication. [Not to be confused with Asterix, "a French comic book series about ancient Gauls".]
  • Left and Right Parenthesis () — Common punctuation characters, used in pairs to indicate an aside, and in arithmetic to group operations, as in (50 + 33) / (22 – 15). Used heavily by numerous programming languages.
  • Low Line _ — Also known as an underscore. Used to underline words and phrases in the days of typewriters, as in, "The tooth fairy is not real", before bold, italic, and other highlighting facilities were available.
  • Hyphen-Minus - — Its name says it all although when typeset, minus signs are often wider. See this link as well.
  • Plus Sign + — Used to mean the obvious plus or as well as. (See example immediately below.)
  • Equals Sign = — The mathematical symbol for equality, as in, "Obama + 4-more-years = Wonderful". Used heavily by numerous programming languages.
  • Left and Right Square Bracket [] — Punctuation characters, used in pairs to indicate supplementary information. [Reviewer John is still working hard to educate me on the "correct" use of () and [].] Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Left and Right Curly Bracket {} — Sometimes called braces (US) or squiggly brackets (UK). Not common in everyday use, but used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Vertical Line | — Also known as a vertical bar. Not common in everyday use, but used a lot in mathematics and computer science.
  • Reverse Solidus \ — Better known as a backslash. Used in various internet contexts, and by certain programming languages.
  • Colon : — A common punctuation character that introduces a list, as in, "The Model T Ford comes in any color you like: black, black, or black!" Also can introduce an appositive. (Yes, really, I read it in Wikipedia!) Formats times (as in 10:30 am). Used by certain programming languages. Not to be confused with a cucumber, which is a long, green vegetable, parts of which when eaten may well pass through your (other) colon.
  • Semicolon ; — A punctuation character that most writers use incorrectly or not at all. Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Quotation Mark " — Also known as a double quote. A common punctuation character used in pairs to show dialog or verbatim quotations, as in, "I have it on good authority that she is not better than she ought to be!" Down Under, we called them inverted commas. Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Apostrophe ' — A common punctuation character often used to indicate the possessive case, as in "The President's shortsratings were sagging". When used as one of a pair, also known as a single quote. Allows one quotation inside another. Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Less-Than Sign < — Its name says it all. Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Greater-Than Sign > — Say no more! Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Comma , — A common punctuation character that most writers (including moi) use in the wrong places. Always keep a box of them handy when writing, and sprinkle them liberally into your text, so the copy editors have something to do. Used heavily by certain programming languages.
  • Full Stop . — Called that throughout much of the British Commonwealth, but in God's own country it's called a period. Used heavily by certain programming languages where it is sometimes called a dot.
  • Question Mark ? — A common punctuation character that ends a question, as in, "Did you know that the Pope was a homosapien?" And who in the world dreamed up the alias eroteme?
  • Solidus / — Say what? It's a slash, damn it! In the absence of a true division symbol (÷), it's sometimes used to mean division. Also used in fractions, in various internet contexts, and by numerous programming languages. A little-known Roman emperor who had the nasty habit of leaning on people. (Yes, I made up that last one!)
    [As astute reviewer John pointed out this may be confusing or misleading, if not incorrect. Here is my response: The Unicode Standard (see below) formally calls this keyboard character Solidus, and that character is used in everyday word processing and in writing computer programs in the manner that I mentioned. However, from a strict typesetting perspective, a slash (/) is different from the Fraction Slash (⁄) and the Division Slash (∕) symbols for which Unicode provides different representations, and which are not on keyboards. By the way, Unicode considers Solidus to be the same as virgule and the shilling mark, even though other conventions may disagree. If you click on the hyperlink at the beginning of this bullet, you'll see far more information about the use of slash-like characters than you probably care to know.]

I've noticed that some Western-European keyboards have a Currency Sign ¤ key. This is used as a generic currency symbol, typically when the actual one is not available. Also, Spanish keyboards have an Inverted Exclamation Mark ¡ (to start an exclamation), and an Inverted Question Mark ¿ (to start a question). What will they think of next?

The World of Wordprocessing

In my December 2011 essay, "Making Good-Looking Documents — Some tips on how to take advantage of a word processing program", I introduced some useful characters that are not ordinarily available on a keyboard. Some of these, and more, are discussed below:


If you use email or instant messaging, the chances are high that you'll have seen and possibly used one or more emoticons (short for emotional icon). You know, those smiley faces, frowns, and other facial expressions. Now, some of these have been immortalized as standard symbols (see more here).

Other Fields having Symbols

The worlds of Mathematics and Logic have a large number of symbols. Another set is proofreaders' marks. Then topographic and cadastral map makers use marks to indicate contours, elevations, latitude and longitude, borders, rivers, roads, railways, bridges, dams, churches, ruins, parks, and so on. Your basic house plan uses symbols to indicate doors, windows, stovetop, sink, stairs, light fixtures, and power outlets, among other things. In my November 2012 essay, "English – Part 2: Pronunciation", I introduced some marks used to indicate pronunciation in English. And the list of fields goes on and on, including religion, the occult, astronomy, alchemy, chemistry, electrical, engineering, music, and hazard and safety.

The Unicode Standard

As personal computers became fixtures in everyday business and personal lives, a consortium was formed to define a set of glyphs that encompassed all the written symbols that are significant in modern business and communication, as well as in academia, including ancient Greek, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The result was Unicode, which initially had a capacity of 65,535 unique values, and included lots of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean glyphs. Since then, that system has been extended to handle more than 1,000,000.

You name it, and that symbol is likely to be in Unicode, although I don't believe written Klingon made it despite attempts to include it. And despite its common use, a raised-middle finger doesn't seem to have made it either. Well to H**l with them if they can't take a joke! ;)

A list of Unicode characters is available here. However, a more manageable approach (complete with visual examples) is available here.


The web site www.symbols.com claims to be "The World's Largest Online Encyclopedia of Western Signs and Ideograms." As of this writing, this site "contains more than 1,600 articles about 2,500 Western signs, arranged into 54 groups according to their graphic characteristics." If you find yourself stuck indoors on a rainy day, take a look at some of these.

The mark is well known. Having been raised in Australia (which is part of the British Commonwealth) I called this a tick, until, that is, I moved to the US, where I now call it a check or check mark. If you follow the link, you will learn that this mark has different meanings in different places including meaning NO!

If you have too much time on your hands, take a look at your word processor to see if it supports a Dingbats font. If so, take a look at the symbols available via that.

By the way, if you really want to end your sentence in style, do so with an interrobang.

I'll leave you with the following sign, which can be found on the mirror of my guest bathroom:

Comments (1) -

  • Felicity

    1/17/2013 1:02:45 AM | Reply

    I think that I'm going to be having nightmares about the interrobangs, vulgar fractions, wingdings and dingbats, all chasing me down the road!

    Really enjoyed this article and your attention to such detail about the different aspects of language. I also have a comma problem,,,,,and am trying to access professional help!

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