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Spider-Man and hyphens: 2017 comic and first appearance in 1962

June 21, 2024

Let’s continue with last week’s theme of Spider-Man (and then throw in a little Buffy the Vampire Slayer later). A few years ago, this appeared in a Spider-Man comic, and I actually laughed out loud when I read it—it’s rare that my work and personal interests intersect so perfectly! Ironically, in Spider-Man’s first appearance ever (Amazing Fantasy #15), the title page says “Spider-Man,” but the very first mention of him in the text says “Spiderman.” 😆


When it comes to superhero names and hyphens, there aren’t any hard rules—it’s really just up to the creators, so you get some names that are hyphenated (Spider-Man), some names that are open (Iron Man), and some names that are closed (Iceman (Spider-Man’s Amazing Friend! 😉)).

Hyphenating names in real life can be a bit flexible too. Most commonly, the reason for hyphenating a name would be to join two last names upon marriage. Traditionally, the man would keep his name as is, while the wife could take his last name and add hers with a hyphen afterward. So, if Peter Parker marries Mary Jane Watson, she could become Mary Jane Parker-Watson. But these days, people don’t feel the need to follow tradition as much, so she could go with Mary Jane Watson-Parker instead—or both Peter and Mary Jane could adopt either Parker-Watson or Watson-Parker as their last names (an option that’s becoming increasingly popular).

Britain also has an interesting tradition involving hyphenated names. For all my fellow Buffy fans out there, remember Wesley Wyndam-Pryce? I always thought it was odd for a man to have a hyphenated last name, since (as of his mother’s generation, anyway), typically only women had hyphenated last names, and if they had children, those children would inherit only the father’s name.

But in Britain, it all has to do with nobility. The tradition of hyphenated names started in the 15th century. Let’s say the Pryces are a family from a long line of nobility, but then they only have a daughter (the shame! 😯), Anne. Since they don’t want their family name to die out, when Anne Pryce is ready to marry Edward Wyndham, the Pryce family can stipulate that the couple uses the combined name Wyndham-Pryce, which would then be passed down to their children. Combing names like this was also common for people from equally noble families (basically as a way to show off just how much nobility they had) and in instances where a man married a woman of higher social standing.

Because hyphenated names were associated with nobility, people later started using hyphenated names just to seem higher class. So, who knows—maybe Wesley Wyndam-Pryce came from a long line of nobility… or maybe, somewhere down the line, an ancestor was just following a trend. 

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Toy Spider-Man Spider 'Car'

June 14, 2024

Sorry I haven’t posted in two weeks—two weeks ago, I was on vacation; then, upon returning last Wednesday, faced a whirlwind (or maybe more like an F4 tornado) of work-related activity. Anyway, I’m back—and look at what I found in a thrift shop while on vacation: Spider ‘Car’! 🤨

For those of you who don’t know, I love Spider-Man. Additionally, I loved toy cars as a kid, and this particular car comes from the era of the Spider-Man cartoon that I grew up watching—plus, it’s in amazing shape for how old it is! But—and I know this makes me even more of a dork—the factor that really sealed the deal when deciding whether to buy this was the unnecessary single quotes around ‘Car’ on the stickers! Yep, I’m always amused by wonky punctuation! 😆 In fact, upon showing this to all my friends, we’ve started referring to it as the “Spider ‘Car’,” saying the word “Car” as if we’re skeptical that it actually is a car (it’s probably one of those things where you just had to be there).

I’ve already written a post on the proper use of quotation marks (on January 12, 2024), so now, let’s take a look at single quotation marks.

In American-style punctuation, the only time you’d really use single quotes would be to set off a quote within a quote. So, for example:

Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben told him, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

⬆️ For this, you’d just use normal (double) quotation marks. However:

Aunt May said, “Peter lives by the words his Uncle Ben told him, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’”

⬆️ Since there’s a quote within the quote, you’d use double quotation marks for the main part of the quote (everything Aunt May is saying) and single quotation marks for the inner quote (Uncle Ben’s words that Aunt May is now saying).

Fun fact: While this is the style in America and Canada, it’s actually reversed in most other English-speaking countries—single quotes for the main quote and double quotes for the inner quote. 

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The letters thorn, wynn, and Y

May 24, 2024

I’m taking a trip to Seattle soon (yay!), and one of my favorite places to visit there is Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. In Middle English, “ye” was a plural form of “you,” so that would essentially make it “Your Old Curiosity Shop,” right? (We have a curiosity shop now? Awesome!) Well, not quite. This “ye” actually has a different origin.

It all starts with a letter we no longer use in the English alphabet: thorn. The letter looks like a “P” with the bump halfway down (capital: Þ, lowercase: þ), and made the sound of “th.” So, back then, “the” would’ve looked like “þe.” So, how did something that sounds like “the” and looks like “þe” turn into “ye”? 

You’ve got to remember, before the printing press, letters weren’t as standardized: They essentially were whatever people wrote them to be. Thorn eventually morphed, becoming very similar to the form of another letter called wynn (capital: Ƿ, lowercase: ƿ) that made the sound of “w” and had already been out of use for quite some time. As you can see, its bump has a bit of an upward slant. 

Then the printing press came along, and letters started to become more standardized. However, it was invented in Germany, which didn’t use Þ or Ƿ, so had no need to make letter forms for them. Next, the press was adopted in Germany’s neighbors, the Netherlands and Belgium, where the letter Y was added. And when printing presses finally made their way to England, rather than create new letter forms, printers simply decided to make do with what they had. It was decided that “Y” looked the closest to “Ƿ,” so they ran with that.

So that’s why “ye” is actually “the”… unless it’s Middle English for “you”… (English is complicated, which I guess I should be thankful for, since it keeps me in business! 😉)

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Flong being peeled off original set type

May 17, 2024

Are stereotypes always negative? To the contrary, they’re always positive. It’s flongs that are always negative. Oh, wait, you thought I was talking about preconceived notions about people or things? Nope! I’m talking about the original meaning of the word “stereotype”—an exact copy of print (or images).

You see, back in olden days, printed pages had to be composed letter by letter. Now, just think about an average newspaper—for every single instance of every single letter on a page, the printer would need to have a metal copy—that adds up to a lot of letters that take up a lot of space. Now, say the newspaper adds a second press to keep up with rising demand. In order to use two presses simultaneously, two complete copies of each page would need to be composed separately, taking twice as much time and using twice as many letters.

Enter: the flong and stereotype. Once a page of metal type was complete, the printer could coat it in a type of wet paper material, which retained the negative impression of the type, creating a flong. Then, liquid metal was poured into the flong to create a positive duplicate plate of the printed page, a stereotype (literally “solid impression”) that could be used for printing.

This process opened up a huge array of possibilities for printers! Now, newspapers could compose a page, create a stereotype of it, and redistribute the type to use on other pages, cutting down on the amount of metal type needed. For books, if there was a possibility that a second printing might be needed, a set of flongs could be created easily and cheaply to keep on hand just in case. 

In fact, because flongs were so lightweight and easy to work with, comic strips were distributed to newspapers in flong form, which the newspapers then used to create stereotypes for printing. This is also the origin of “clip art”—newspapers could subscribe to services that would send flongs with pieces of art that could literally be clipped out and used wherever needed.

I could go on, but I’m a huge nerd for stuff like this (and I’m sure most of you aren’t). But if you’d like to learn more, check out Glenn Fleishman’s article “Flong time, no see” and his book Six Centuries of Type & Printing.

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Thomas de Mahy's last words: “Permit me to point out that you have made three mistakes in spelling.”

May 10, 2024

The tradition of giving those who are condemned the chance to say last words can be traced back as far as 1388 (and who knows how long it was actually going on before that). The original reason for giving people the opportunity to speak before their execution was mostly to give them a chance at public repentance: Beg for forgiveness from God, beg for forgiveness from those they wronged, or simply lament their misdeeds and serve as a cautionary example for others.

Thomas de Mahy, however, decided to use his last words to take a snarky jab at his persecutors. Upon examining his death warrant, he reportedly commented:

“Permit me to point out that you have made three mistakes in spelling.”

And thus, he became an icon to word nerds everywhere! 😆 

In case you want to know more about him, Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras, was a French aristocrat who lived 1744–1790. During the French Revolution, he was a Royalist, and was arrested for a crime essentially equating to treason against the people of France.

But, personally, his last words are my favorite thing about him, and I’m sure that’s the case for most people these days who’ve heard of him. 😉

Do you know of any particularly memorable last words? If so, please share them!

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May 3, 2024

It's been a busy, hectic week, meaning that I haven't had time to write a full post (sorry!). So here’s a fun and informative comic by The Oatmeal on how to use i.e. and e.g. properly. But if you want a quick and easy way to remember which is which:

e.g. = example given
i.e. = in essence

https://theoatmeal.com/comics/ie

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Restaurant sign that says "THE BEST MEXICAN FOOD IN THE AREA"

April 26, 2024

“I am the best editor.” Is this statement true? That depends. Without any other context, it implies that I’m claiming to be the best editor in the world—and as much as I’d like to believe that’s true, I’m sure there are maybe one or two editors out there who are more experienced and skilled than I am. 😉 Am I the best editor in Nevada? Maybe—I mean, that’s certainly more likely than being the best in the world. What about the best editor in my household? I can confidently answer that with a resounding “Yes!” 😁

When it comes to superlatives (best, fastest, biggest, etc.), it’s all relative. Anything can be the “best” if you narrow the comparison parameters enough.

There used to be a Mexican restaurant nearby that had “THE BEST MEXICAN FOOD IN THE AREA” on its sign, and my spouse and I would joke about what their definition of “area” was. If they were talking about the entire Southwest, then that’s a pretty bold claim. If they were talking about the parking lot they were in, then I have no doubt that their Mexican food was superior to that of their neighbors: a pizzeria, a credit union, and a copy shop. (I see on the pic I pulled from Google Street View that “Vegas” is painted on the building next to the sign, which I don’t remember seeing back when the restaurant was around. So maybe they were just claiming to be the best in the Vegas area…?)

As an editor, part of my job is keeping an eye out for things that could be misinterpreted by readers, and superlatives are something I always watch out for. Without parameters to define the extent covered by a superlative, you could be making a false claim and/or misleading your readers. So, the next time you say—or read—that something is the “best,” think about the overall context of that statement. 

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Badly translated English phrases from "English as She Is Spoke"

April 19, 2024

What does it take for someone to write a bilingual phrasebook for travelers? I’d think, at a minimum, you’d need to be fluent in both languages. No? OK, then… fluent in one language and at least a basic understanding of the second? Still no‽ In that case… fluency in one language and two different sets of translation books? Yes, precisely!

At least, that’s the case with Pedro Carolino while writing his Portuguese/English phrasebook published in 1855. The book, “O Novo Guia da Conversação, em Português e Inglês, em Duas Partes,” literally translates to “The new guide to conversation, in Portuguese and English, in Two Parts,” but became widely known as “English as She Is Spoke.” This book became a bestseller in English-speaking countries—not because of its usefulness, but because of the complete nonsense it contained. Under “Familiar Phrases,” it contains such common, everyday sayings as:

• “Dress your hairs.”
• “Tell me, it can one to know?”
• “He has spit in my coat.” (I hate it when he does that!)
• “She are both very fine.”
• “He burns one's self the brains.”
• “He do the devil at four.”

How on earth did Carolino come up with these “English” phrases? And why would someone try to write a phrasebook for a language they don’t even know? Well, the answer to the second question is probably “money.” And as for how he got these phrases: Two years earlier, he released a Portuguese/French phrasebook. He then used a French/English dictionary to translate the phrases from his first book into English. As anyone who’s ever studied another language (or even used Google Translate) knows, most of the time, word-for-word translations usually just don’t quite work out—and that was certainly the case here!

If you want to check it out for yourself, Google Books has the full text available for free: https://books.google.com/books?id=lUd5AAAAIAAJ

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April 12, 2024

I’ve been extremely busy with a big project (yay!), which means I haven’t had time to write a proper post this week (boo!). Since I don’t want to leave all my loyal followers hanging, please enjoy this collection of humorously placed library labels: https://dangerousminds.net/comments/dicks_for_breakfast_and_other_library_barcode_fails.

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Chained library

April 5, 2024

What would you do to protect your books? Personally, I have quite a number of books that I would never lend out (I suppose if someone really wanted to read those, they could hang out at my house to do it), and a few that I’m not even comfortable letting other people touch (mostly ones that are 100+ years old and fragile). While I don’t do anything specific to protect my books or identify them as mine, I know that some people write their names in books, put address labels inside the covers, or use “property of” stickers or stamps.

In the Middle Ages, however, people took the task of protecting their books very seriously! Before the invention of the printing press, every book had to be written by hand, a process that could take years. This made books rarer and more valuable and, therefore, much harder to replace if lost or stolen. So how did libraries keep their collections safe? Some of them chained up their books! The chains were usually long enough to reach a nearby table or a platform attached to the bookshelves.

Cages at Marsh's Library in Dublin

Don’t want to deal with books that are all locked up? Well, then I’ve got great news—you could be locked up instead! In the 1760s, Marsh’s Library in Dublin added “cages” in which people could take books to read. The librarian would then lock in the patron with the books to ensure they didn’t steal anything. (Note: When I first read about “cages,” I pictured something like a prison cell. However, based on a picture from the library’s website, they actually look more like fancy cubicles—“cage” is just the term they happened to use.)

Elaborate book curse from the Middle Ages

But what if you couldn’t afford chains or cages? Then another option is adding a curse targeted at potential thieves to your book! The curses usually threatened excommunication, death, and/or Hell—pretty much the biggest things you could threaten someone with back then. While many of them were short and simple, I particularly like this elaborate one:

“For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.”

That sounds fair for stealing a book, right? Maybe I should include that on a sticky note (since I wouldn’t dream of writing in books themselves) whenever I lend a book to someone from now on. 😉 

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Star Wars opening crawl in regular text, boustrophedon, and reverse boustrophedon

March 29, 2024

While reading, have you ever lost your place when going from one line of text to the next? Especially with long lines of text, it’s easy for your eyes to move to the wrong line. Most European languages read from left to right, while some languages (most notably Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian) read right to left. But did you know that languages can also be written back and forth?

Boustrophedon is a style of writing that alternates direction on each line. The term “boustrophedon” comes from Greek and has the literal meaning of “like the ox turns”—since, when plowing a field, when an ox comes to the end, it turns around and goes back the way it came from. This style of writing was commonly used in ancient Greece, but its popularity eventually faded.

In standard boustrophedon, the lines are read from top to bottom, with the first line read left to right, and the next line read right to left, with the characters mirrored from their usual direction. To illustrate how this would look, I took something familiar to most people: the first section of the Star Wars opening crawl. It looks kind of trippy, huh?

However, we can also take it one step further: reverse boustrophedon! In this variant, lines are read from bottom to top, with the first line read left to right, and the next line right to left. But now, instead of just being mirrored from their usual direction, the characters in the even rows are also upside down! The reader would’ve had to turn the tablet upside down with each row or have been proficient in reading upside down and backwards. To me, this seems like it would’ve been more of a hassle to read, but I’m sure there must’ve been some logic to using this system. This style wasn’t as widely used, but examples of it have been found.

So, which style do you like best? Personally, I’d be curious to see the alternate universe where regular boustrophedon became standard. It seems like it could make reading easier and more efficient, especially if you’ve grown up reading that way.

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Art typos: Einstein spelled Eistein and FUTURE spelled EUTURE

March 22, 2024

While researching last week’s post, I ran across more artistic typos than I could cover at once, so here are some non-sports typos in art. The one I found that had more coverage than any others is the story of the large mosaic installed outside the public library in Livermore, CA in 2004. It depicts people famous in the arts and sciences… and it spelled 11 of their names wrong. A few notable examples are Einstein spelled “Eistein” (missing the first “n”), Shakespeare spelled “Shakespere” (missing the second “a”), and Michelangelo spelled “Michaelangelo” (adding an extra “a”).

Artist Maria Alquilar initially claimed artistic license and said that “The people that are into humanities, and are into Blake's concept of enlightenment, they are not looking at the words.” Well, maybe those people weren’t looking at the words, but everyone else sure was! 😆 Alquilar initially refused to fix the misspellings because people were being “too mean” to her about it. However, after the city council voted to pay her $6,000 to fix the mosaic, she finally did. (It seems like she should’ve had to do that free of charge since she’s the one that messed it up in the first place, but whatever…) 🙄

Want something that’s a bit bigger in scale? How about the Lincoln Memorial? While the mistake isn’t as embarrassing, the piece is certainly more prominent. Lincoln’s second inaugural address is inscribed on the interior of the monument, and in it, the word “FUTURE” was mistakenly carved as “EUTURE.” The bottom of the “E” was filled in, but it’s still visible. The National Park Service’s take on it: “In a place where iconic memorials can make people seem larger than life, it can be helpful to have a reminder that no one is perfect.” 😉 

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Misspellings on statues of Kobe Bryant and Wayne Gretzky

March 15, 2024

Anyone who knows me knows that my interest in sports is essentially zero. However, this sports story caught my attention because it’s also all about editing! A statue of basketball player Kobe Bryant was just unveiled in Los Angeles… and shortly after, typos were discovered in its inscriptions. Two names were spelled wrong: Von Wafer was listed as “Vom Wafer,” and Jose Calderon was listed as “Jose Calderson.” While that’s certainly embarrassing, and the names should’ve been double- and triple-checked before inscribing them, it’s easy to understand how names could be spelled wrong with all the different spelling variations out there and—WAIT, WHAT? They also spelled “Decision” as “Decicion”? And the misspelling is directly below the correct spelling of the word‽ How does that even happen‽ 😩

I don’t know the process that was used in creating this statue, but it seems like—at some point—all the text would’ve been typed up to figure out what would go on the statue and what the layout would be. And a spell checker would’ve easily found the error. And even if that didn’t happen, the correct spelling was directly above it!

This got me curious about other similar errors, and it turns out that about a decade ago, there was an even weirder story about another sports legend’s statue. In 2013, a statue of hockey player Wayne Gretzky was unveiled in his hometown of Brantford, Ontario. In the statue, Gretzky is holding up the Stanly Cup… but the inscriptions on it are… weird… to say the least. First of all, an “s” is added to his name, spelling it as “Gretzsky.” It also lists him as being on teams he was never part of, has incorrect teams listed as champions for various years, and—probably the oddest part—has various celebrities (like Kanye West, Oprah Winfrey, Oscar Wilde, Emily Dickenson…) listed as being on hockey teams.

The artist claimed that the words on the cup were never intended to be read, which then led me to ponder a somewhat philosophical question: Is there such as thing as a word that isn’t intended to be read? By nature, the reason for writing/typing words is so that they can be read—even if it’s only for the person creating it. 🤔

Anyway, let this be a reminder to all artists (and creators in general): If you’re including text in your work, please make sure it’s the text you’re intending/expecting before you produce the final product! Maybe even ask someone else to take a look at it, just to be sure. (Hmm… maybe I should add “art proofreading” to my resume. 💡) 

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"Our Dumb Animals" magazine July 1944 with two cats on the cover

March 8, 2024

“Our Dumb Animals”—several years ago, while browsing around an antique mall, my spouse and I ran across a copy of this animal advocacy magazine. Our response? “THAT’S SO MEAN! Why would they call it that‽” Our assumption was that the intent behind the title was, “Animals are too stupid to care for themselves, so humans need to step up and protect them.” The phrase became a bit of a joke to us, and whenever our cat would do anything particularly silly, we’d roll our eyes and say, “our dumb animals.”

But then, a few years later, I ran across a modern animal shelter called the Dumb Friends League. At first, I was struck by what a weird name that was for an animal shelter, but then it suddenly hit me: They mean “dumb” in the sense of “unable to speak,” not “stupid”! The copy of “Our Dumb Animals” that I’d seen was the same style as the one I’ve attached here, but if I’d seen an older copy, it may have cleared up the confusion—the magazine originally had the tagline “We Speak For Those Who Cannot Speak For Themselves” printed on the cover. (That seems to have changed sometime in the early ’30s.)

So, how did this word come to have these two meanings? Well, the original one was “unable to speak,” and it’s not much of a stretch to believe that people back in olden days might’ve associated the inability to speak with a lack of intelligence, leading to the newer definition. It’s also thought to have been influenced by the German “dumm,” with the meaning of “stupid” or “silly.”

While our pets’ intelligence may be a matter of debate, they almost certainly are dumb in the sense of “unable to speak”… unless you happen to have an intelligent parrot, in which case, you may have a pet that isn’t dumb in any sense of the word! 

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A/an example: It's an honor to be involved in such a historic event.

March 1, 2024

“A” or “an”? Which should you use when? Most English speakers are taught that you use “a” before a word starting with a consonant and “an” before a word starting with a vowel… but if that’s the case, how do we get “an honor”? Well, it’s not quite as straightforward as consonant versus vowel. It’s actually based on whether the next letter makes the sound of a consonant or a vowel.

As I’m sure you’re well aware, in English there are multiple ways for individual letters to be pronounced, so that’s what really counts when deciding between “a” and “an.” That’s how we get “a union” (“youn-yun”) or “an hour” (“ow-er”). It works the same way for acronyms, so it would be “a MIDI song” since it’s pronounced as a word (“midi”), or “an MRI scan” since it’s pronounced as each individual letter (“em-ar-aye”).

So, why do people say “an historic” so often? I’ve actually heard it on my local news twice in the past couple of weeks, and it always sounds jarring to me. Well, there are a couple possible reasons for this. One is that people mistakenly think it is as simple as vowel versus consonant and—because of words with a silent “h” like “honor” or “herb”—“h” is just an exception to that rule and is grouped in the vowel column.

Another reason is that people pronounce things differently. For example, in Britain’s Cockney dialect, the “h” sound is usually dropped, making it “an ’istoric”—which would technically be correct, since the word then starts with a vowel sound. English has gone through a lot of changes over the years, with spellings and pronunciations fluctuating, English borrowing words from other languages, and then those imported spellings and pronunciations fluctuating. So, at some point, “an” very well could’ve been the proper article for “historic” if the “h” wasn’t pronounced—and who knows why that particular language quirk has hung on while others faded away.

But regardless of its history, let me assure you: If you are speaking American (or Canadian, for that matter) English, “a historic” is the right choice. 

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Examples of unnecessary apostrophes

February 23, 2024

Let’s talk about apostrophes. Apostrophe misuse is a fairly common issue, and a huge pet peeve for word nerds like me. With a couple of hyper-specific exceptions (which I’ll cover shortly), apostrophes aren’t used for plurals, but people seem to do this all the time!

So, let’s start by looking at the proper use of apostrophes.

• The most common use (so common, in fact, it’s already been used a few times in this post), is to denote missing letters in a contraction, so “let us” = “let’s,” “I will” = “I’ll,” “are not” = “aren’t,” “it is” = “it’s.”

• On a related note, apostrophes are also used to indicate missing numbers in years, for example, “Star Wars came out in ’77,” or “The Simpsons has been on since the ’80s.”

• Apostrophes are also used to indicate possession, as in, “Nancy’s cat is named Mew,” or “The Avengers’ powers and teamwork make them Earth’s mightiest heroes!” (For words already ending in “s,” whether you use just an apostrophe versus using an apostrophe plus “s” depends on the style guide you’re using, so we won’t get into that here.)

▸However, there is one big exception to this that frequently causes confusion: its. As a possessive, “its” never has an apostrophe, meaning that “it’s” is always a contraction meaning “it is” or “it has.” So, continuing my example from above, “Star Wars came out in ’77; its release date was May 25” (possessive), versus “The Simpsons has been on since the ’80s; it’s one of the most popular shows in history” (“it is”).

So, I mentioned a couple of scenarios where you actually should use an apostrophe for plurals—here they are:

Plurals of single letters—This is done largely to avoid confusion. Take a look at: “Lisa Simpson has two i’s in her name.” Without the apostrophe, “i’s” could easily be mistaken for the word “is.”

Plurals of acronyms when all of the text is capitalized—This is pretty much only used in advertising. In “All PCs on sale!” it’s clear that the acronym is “PC,” and the lowercase “s” makes it plural. However, when it’s styled as “ALL PC’S ON SALE!” without the apostrophe, it could be unclear whether it’s supposed to be the plural of “PC” or if “PCS” is its own acronym with a different meaning. While I personally frown on this use of apostrophes, I appreciate its usefulness—besides, it’s rarely used anyway.

For everyone who can use apostrophes properly, I present this apos-trophy: 🏆! And for the rest of you, keep practicing—that trophy is within everybody’s reach!

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Moth in 1947 Harvard Mark II logbook and Thomas Edison letter using term "bug"

February 16, 2024

Sometimes research leads you to unexpected places. My original topic for this post was the origin of the technological sense of the word “bug.” You see, in 1947, the Harvard Mark II computer was having odd, unexplained problems, and programmers were at a loss as to what could be causing them. Eventually, someone looked inside the physical hardware and found a dead moth. This moth had managed to fry some circuits, which is what was causing the issues. The moth was then taped into the computer’s logbook with the caption, “The first actual case of bug being found.” And ever since then, “bug” has been a term for an error in technology.

But… actually… no.

While this account of events is factual, the term “bug” for anomalous errors had already been in use for quite some time. The logbook entry was just a humorous observation that an actual, literal bug was at fault for causing the errors.

So, how did “bug” come to mean “error” or “problem”?

Going waaaay back, the first incarnation of “bug” in English is the Middle English “bugge,” which had the meaning of “something frightening” or “scarecrow” and also spawned the words “bugbear” and “bugaboo”—both words for monsters. It’s easy to see how a term for “monster” eventually came to be applied to insects, which many people fear (or, at least, have an aversion to).

“Bug” was already being used as a term for technical errors by the late 1800s. Its earliest documented use is in an 1878 letter written by Thomas Edison, stating that “I did find a ‘bug’ in my apparatus ….” He goes on to discuss the “genus” of the “insect” causing the problems, so it’s clear that Edison had the “insect” sense of the word in mind while describing his problem.

So, the next time your phone or computer is acting buggy, just be thankful (or hopeful?) that the problems aren’t being caused by actual bugs!

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Crush - woman infatuated and literally crushing someone

February 9, 2024

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, let’s take a look at “crush.” Saying “I’m crushing on him so hard” could mean “I’m infatuated with him,” or, if you want to go a darker route, “I’m exerting a violent, compressive force on him.” How did we get these two wildly different meanings from the same word?

It looks like it actually started with “mash.” You see, in the late 1800s, “mash” was used in much the same way that “crush” is now. In fact, the noun “masher” referred to a dashing young man who was popular with the ladies, and “mash-note” had the meaning of “love letter.” One example of use that I was able to find is: “He had a weakness to be considered a regular masher of female hearts…” so, basically, it could mean “heartbreaker,” which definitely tracks with the potential violence implied by “mash.”

It’s thought that “crush” popped up as a synonym for “mash”—maybe someone was just looking to add a little variety to their vocabulary, maybe they were trying to be funny—who knows? The earliest known use of “crush” in the romantic sense in writing is in 1884, in the journal of Isabella Maud Rittenhouse. In it, she wrote, “Wintie is weeping because her crush is gone.” And within the next decade, “crush” came to have the meaning of either the object of one’s infatuation or the feeling of infatuation itself.

So, this Valentine’s Day, here’s hoping that things go well with your crush—whatever the situation might be. 😉 

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OK? OK!

February 2, 2024

A few years back, I heard a news story about how the most widely used word throughout the world was “OK.” In fact, according to Wikipedia, at least 20 different languages use it with little or no difference in pronunciation. But where does “OK” come from? I’d always had the vague impression that it was an abbreviation of some kind of military term (I’m not really sure why), but it turns out that its origin is nowhere near that official!

It all started in Boston in the 1830s (possibly a bit earlier). At the time, there was a fad going around where people would intentionally misspell words; then, adding a layer of complexity, they started using the abbreviations of these misspelled words. So, “all correct” became “oll korrect,” which then turned into “O.K.” The earliest known use in print was in the “Boston Morning Post” in 1939.

But there were myriad abbreviations like this at the time, so why did “OK” stick around while all the others faded away? Politics. In 1840, President Martin Van Buren was running for reelection. His nickname was Old Kinderhook, due to the fact that he came from Kinderhook, New York. Because his nickname’s abbreviation was “O.K.,” he decided to capitalize on the abbreviation fad and use “Vote for O.K.” as his campaign slogan, spreading “O.K.” across the nation and popularizing its use.

And how did it go worldwide? As English spread and became a dominant language, its influence spread, with many other languages adopting English loanwords. “OK” is short and easy to pronounce, with most languages possessing the basic sounds needed to say it. And furthermore, it’s versatile—“OK” can mean “good,” “fine,” or “adequate,” but can also mean “understood” or “acknowledged.”

OK, one last thing to address: Is it “OK,” “O.K.,” “okay,” “ok”… or some other variation? Well, it started out as an abbreviation in the 1800s, making it “O.K.,” but in modern times, style guides have done away with periods in abbreviations, which would now make it “OK.” I’ve worked with some clients that specify using “okay,” which kind of drives me nuts, since it’s an entirely made-up word (I know—all words are made up, but you know what I mean!), but rest assured that it should never, ever be “ok.” Because that is not OK! OK? OK.

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Row of interrobangs in different fonts

January 26, 2024

Today I’d like to talk about my favorite punctuation mark: the interrobang (‽). I only learned of its existence several years ago, and when I did, I immediately fell in love with it! If you’re not familiar with the interrobang, an example of use is: “You forgot to bring her birthday cake‽”—it’s a question, but also expresses surprise or disbelief (and, in this case, possibly disappointment and/or anger too).

For those of you who know me personally, I tend to use exclamation points a lot—probably more than I should (I try to dial it back a bit when I’m being all professional, though 😉). The interrobang is such a simple, elegant way to simultaneously convey surprise or urgency while asking a question—I’ve always felt that using two end punctuation marks (?!) felt clunky.

And apparently I’m not the only one who thought it felt clunky—in 1962 Martin K. Spektor, head of an advertising agency, came up with the idea of combining the question mark and exclamation point into the interrobang, which was then designed by his agency’s art director, Jack Lipton.

As for the etymology of the term, the “interro-” part comes from the Latin “interrogātiō,” which, according to Wiktionary, means “A questioning, inquiry, examination, interrogation.” Also, the earliest known English term for the question mark is “point of interrogation.” Meanwhile, “bang” is slang for an exclamation point in typesetting (and in programming, but that part probably isn’t relevant here).

OK, back to its history! Initially, the interrobang was mostly used as a graphic component since it didn’t exist in physical typeface yet. However, that changed in 1966, when American Type Founders created the font Americana, the first font to include the interrobang. Then, in 1968, Remington Rand made an optional interrobang key for its Model 25 typewriters. You see, that model had some interchangeable keys, so, for example, if you didn’t really use the colon/semicolon key, you could pop it off, buy a separate interrobang key, and add that in its place (This was also handy for the Spanish-speaking market, since you could buy a key with ¡ and ¿, not typically included on American typewriters). Smith-Corona, another typewriter manufacturer, followed suit, and the interrobang saw a brief period of rising popularity.

However, due to limitations of professional typesetting machines of the time, adding the interrobang to their lineup of symbols would necessitate the removal of some other symbol—a sacrifice the industry overall wasn’t willing to make. Because of this, the interrobang was rarely used in books, newspapers, magazines, or any other printed material regularly consumed by the public, and as a result, fell out of use.

But that’s not the end of the story! The limitations of typesetting machines were thrown out the window once things started going digital. The interrobang was added to Unicode (U+203D) in 1993, and although most fonts don’t include it, at least it’s now a usable character! (For the record, I tried to find if there’s a specific person who could be credited with including the interrobang to Unicode, but couldn’t find any info on it.) It’s being rediscovered by a new generation, and who knows—maybe someday the interrobang will be considered just as standard as a period, question mark, or exclamation point. 

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Deadpool - My name is in the %$CONTENT$amp;@ title

January 19, 2024

What the $!@% is grawlix? I recently started working with a new client, and while reviewing their style guide, ran across an entry stating that profanities should be replaced with grawlix. I’d never encountered that term before. It turns out that “$!@%” is grawlix! (Or is it?? 🤨)

Naturally, I Googled it, and found several places that defined “grawlix” as using non-letter typographical characters to obscure obscenities. Anyone who reads comics (especially Deadpool, one of my personal favorites 😉) has no doubt seen this in use, and this practice has become so widespread that it’s even featured on an emoji meant to express anger: 🤬.

Its first known instance was in 1901, in a comic called “Lady Bountiful Is Shocked,” which can be seen here on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grawlix#/media/File:First_known_grawlix.jpg (Thanks, Wikipedia—you’re the best!). However, the term “grawlix” wasn’t coined until 1964 by Mort Walker, a comic artist best known for Beetle Bailey. The word first appeared in his paper “Let’s Get Down to Grawlixes” (which I wasn’t able to find a copy of—if any of you know where to find it, please share!), and then in his 1980 book “The Lexicon of Comicana” (which I was able to read a copy of). Although the book was meant to be satire, a number of its terms were adopted for regular use in the comics industry. 

Mort Walker maladicta

This is where it gets (more) interesting. In the book, Walker lists four types of “maladicta” to use in place of obscenities:
Jarns: Swirly characters (sorry, but I couldn’t find any similar emojis for this one)
Quimps: Characters resembling moons or planets, like 🌙 or 🪐
Nittles: Star- and starburst-like characters, like ⭐, ✴️, or ✳️
Grawlixes: Unintelligible scrawling, like 〰️〰️

So, this makes me wonder: Are groups of punctuation characters actually grawlix? None of these entries actually address regular characters that you would find on a standard keyboard (with the exception of nittles, which could include the asterisk), and based on the examples given, something like “$!@%” would resemble grawlix the least out of the four options.

I’d love to know how and why these groups of characters came to be known as “grawlix” rather than “jarns,” “quimps,” or “nittles”—or even just “maladicta.” Did Walker’s original 1964 paper include a different and/or broader definition for “grawlix”? Or, at some point in history, did someone who had only partial knowledge of Walker’s work—or possibly misunderstood it—start calling it “grawlix,” and it just caught on because no one questioned it? If anybody has any insight on this, I’d love to hear about it! 

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Regular Show "Family" "Restaurant" quotes

January 12, 2024

“Why is everything in quotes?”—Rigby

I guess I’m on a bit of a cartoon kick, because this image illustrating unnecessary quotation marks comes from Regular Show. Why do people use quotation marks for emphasis? And why does it feel so wrong to the rest of us? Let’s explore!

To start, let’s take a look at the proper use of quotation marks. Their most obvious use is for direct quotes—this can include full sentences or full paragraphs (or even more!) but can also be used for sentence fragments or even a single word. Quotation marks are also commonly used for titles—usage can vary a bit depending on what style guide you’re using, but it usually includes the names of books, movies, songs, and similar things. And, in a more modern twist, quotation marks have come to indicate sarcasm, irony, disagreement, or disbelief.

It’s this last one that’s most important here. How did it start? If authors were writing on a topic they didn't necessarily agree with, they would quote words or phrases from others in order to distance themselves from that opinion. For example, “Krusty Burger has the ‘tastiest’ food in Springfield, according to Bart.” And this practice of using quotation marks to distance an author from words or opinions eventually morphed into the use of quotes to denote something that is contradictory to the quoted words’ normal use. An example of this: “The toys in the Laffy Meals at Krusty Burger are always ‘high quality’ and ‘fun’”—implying that the toys are neither high quality nor fun.

It’s because of this contradictory use of quotation marks that, when we see them in unexpected places (and without any sort of attribution or further explanation), our brains usually jump to the conclusion that they’re being used to indicate irony or sarcasm.

So, why do people use quotation marks for emphasis in the first place? Well, depending on the style guide and tools available, emphasis is usually denoted with bold, italic, or underlined text. However, those options aren’t always available (or could be easily stripped out by accident), so instead of formatting, people turned to punctuation. (Personally, I think they should’ve used some other, less-used punctuation mark, but I didn’t exactly have a say in it.)

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed 😀 this (rather than “enjoyed” 🙄 it), and if you did, I highly recommend you check out http://www.unnecessaryquotes.com/ for more silliness like this.

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Lionel Hutz - Works on contingency no money down

January 5, 2024

This is one of my all-time favorite bits from The Simpsons and also a fantastic punctuation gag. By adding just three punctuation marks, Lionel Hutz changes this from a statement saying that no upfront payment is necessary to a question and answer stating that prepayment is required. (And as a side note: To this day, every time I hear “no money down” in an ad for a car dealership, furniture store, etc., my brain immediately translates it to “No, money down!”)

The very first punctuation appeared in the third century BCE—initially, just used to indicate to speakers when they could pause for a breath. These days, a standard keyboard has 26 different punctuation marks on it, and that doesn't even account for special characters that only grammar geeks are likely to use, like the en dash (–) or em dash (—) (or, my personal favorite, the interrobang (‽))—all of which have their own, specific uses and meanings.

Wield your punctuation wisely: It can make all the difference!

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1977 IBM computer-generated political speech

December 20, 2023

Yesterday, as I was unpacking a box of gifts received, I noticed that the packing material in the box was old newspaper. Now, when I say “old,” I don’t mean like 5 years ago—more like 45 years ago! Score! Since I love history, I was thrilled to have a chance to browse through these pages.

The small article attached here really jumped out at me. (Just as a quick aside: Ugh! Can you believe they used “IBM” both with periods and without? C’mon, how hard is it to be consistent in an article this short‽) This is from “The Fox River Patriot” dated August 24-Sept. 13, 1977; however, I was stunned by how modern it sounded. Just update the years and change “IBM computer” to “ChatGPT,” and it would fit in perfectly today. I was intrigued that such an advanced technology was being used so long ago, so I did a little digging to find out more.

I was able to track down the original research paper—complete with the full speech that was generated—at https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED137863.pdf. Out of the 35-page PDF, I was disappointed that only a couple of paragraphs actually deal with the computer aspect of this—the paper mainly focuses on data collection and statistics. As far as I understand, they had a random sample of people read several statements about foreign policy and indicate whether they agreed or disagreed. Then, the statements and the agree/disagree rates were fed into the computer—along with the instruction that the speech shouldn’t offend or alienate anyone.

If you’d like to (try to) read the results yourself, the speech starts on page 28 in the PDF linked above. Unfortunately, the document is in pretty rough shape, with lots of white spots and streaks (especially on the speech’s pages), so it’s a bit difficult to get through. However, the speech itself sounds perfectly cromulent to me, and would fit in quite well in the late ‘70s. IBM, however you handled the programming for this, congrats on a job well done!

**************************************************************************

So, then I decided to take this a step further. I went to ChatGPT and input the prompt: “Can you please write a short political speech on the topic of foreign policy? It should “play to Peoria” both literally and figuratively, appealing to a broad range of middle-class people, and minimize the risk of offending or alienating anyone.”

And here’s what ChatGPT came up with for me.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for joining me today as we discuss a topic crucial to our nation's well-being – foreign policy. Our approach to the world beyond our borders shapes not only our relationships with other nations but also directly impacts the lives of hardworking Americans right here in Peoria.

In this globalized world, it's essential that we prioritize policies that strengthen our economy and create opportunities for our middle-class families. Together, we can ensure that the benefits of a robust foreign policy are felt by everyone in Peoria, from Main Street to our local businesses.

We believe in fostering strong alliances that promote peace and stability. By engaging with the global community, we can open new doors for our farmers, manufacturers, and small businesses. A thriving Peoria depends on a thriving global marketplace, and we are committed to ensuring that our workers and entrepreneurs have every opportunity to succeed.

At the same time, we recognize the importance of protecting American interests. Our foreign policy will be guided by a commitment to fairness, ensuring that trade deals are beneficial to our workers and industries. We will stand strong in the face of challenges, putting the needs of Peoria's middle class at the forefront of our decisions.

Diplomacy, cooperation, and common-sense solutions will be our tools on the world stage. By working together, we can address global issues like climate change, health crises, and security threats in a way that benefits both our citizens and those around the world.

In conclusion, let us forge a foreign policy that plays to Peoria – one that prioritizes the well-being of our middle-class families, fosters economic growth, and upholds the values that make our nation great. Together, we can build a future where Peoria's interests are at the heart of our global engagement, ensuring a brighter and more prosperous tomorrow for us all.

Thank you, and may we continue to move forward together as one united community.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Not bad, especially considering the limited input it had to work with. Definitely a lot more mentions of “Peoria” and a lot fewer mentions of “communism” than the original!

I’d like to give a shout out to John F. Cragan and Donald C. Shields, the authors of the original study, who undoubtedly helped lay the foundation for the technology we have today!

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Man-eating chicken vs. man eating chicken

September 29, 2023

I recently attended an oddities exhibit that promised (among other things) a “MAN EATING CHICKEN” — and it delivered exactly as promised. In the final room, there was a man sitting at a table, eating chicken. I got a chuckle out of it, but this was exactly what I expected. Why? The lack of punctuation gave it away! If it had been hyphenated — “MAN-EATING CHICKEN” — it would mean a chicken that eats men, but without the hyphen, it’s just a guy having an ordinary dinner.

In a case like this, the hyphen makes “man-eating” a compound adjective, meaning that both words together form a single concept that modifies whatever noun comes after it.

Take a look at this sentence: “Construction requires fifty five meter-long beams.” How many beams are needed? And how long do they need to be? Without hyphenating the numbers at all, it’s ambiguous.

However:

“Construction requires fifty-five meter-long beams.” = 55 beams that are each 1 meter long are needed.

“Construction requires fifty five-meter-long beams.” = 50 beams that are each 5 meters long are needed.

That’s an overall difference of 195 meters!

I own my own business. Does that make me a “small business owner” or a “small-business owner”? A “small-business owner” is a person who owns a small business, while a “small business owner” could be interpreted as a small person who owns a business of indeterminate size.

So, do two (or more) words before a noun form a single idea? If so, be sure to hyphenate! (Unless it ends in “ly” — but that’s a topic for another day.)

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September 20, 2023

Do you have a buttload of work that you need to get done today? Or maybe your friend is making a buttload of money at their fancy new job. Well, believe it or not, rather than simply being slang for “a lot,” “buttload” is an actual (though archaic) unit of measurement!

It originates in Middle English, where “butt” could refer to either a two-wheeled cart or a cask of liquid. For the “cart” sense of the word, one buttload equals 48 bushels or 384 gallons. For the “cask” sense of the word, the value seems to vary depending on the source, but from what I'm finding, it ranges from 126–259 gallons.

So, the next time someone mentions “a buttload” of something, just think about how many gallons or bushels that works out to. 😉

I’d like to give a shout out to local news anchors Alyssa Deitsch and Dave Hall, who were talking about this on air yesterday—thanks for bringing up this fascinating (and surprising) etymology, which led me to look into it further!

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Lindley Murray children's pronoun is "it"

August 17, 2023

Do children actually count as people?

If you’re shocked and/or horrified by that question, then you have a very different mindset than people (or, at least, grammarians) from the late 1700s through the early 1900s.

While reading “A Manual of the Practice of Medicine,” published in 1901, I ran across this line, referring to a child as “it” three times. I’d read about this use before, but this was the first time I’d actually seen it in print.

While this may sound odd to the modern ear, “it” actually used to be considered the standard pronoun for children! This can be traced back to Lindley Murray, a lawyer and grammarian, who wrote the book “English Grammar: Comprehending the Principles and Rules of the Language” in 1795. This became the standard guide for English grammar in both England and America, and sold literally millions of copies. In the book, Murray states that, like animals, children and infants are incapable of “reason and reflection,” and, therefore, “[w]e hardly consider little children as persons.”

So, what do you think about “it”?

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Ezough bracelet typo

August 14, 2023

“Hey, boss, does this bracelet look OK to you?”

“Eh, good ezough.”

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Unlimited Puerto Rick typo

August 10, 2023

I’m thinking about changing wireless plans, so I was looking into the details of one of them. I’m so glad I can finally get unlimited calling to Puerto Rick! 😆 (And this is why anyone publishing anything that will be seen by the public should have an editor check it first! 😉)

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Good-bye modern hyphenation in car

July 27, 2023

I recently bought a new car — actually, the first car I’ve ever owned that was made in the 21st century, so it’s quite a bit more technologically advanced than I’m used to. Whenever I turn it off, the display on the dashboard says “Good-bye,” which struck me as kind of odd — hyphenating “goodbye” just feels so old-fashioned to me, especially for a car made in 2018! So, I decided to do a little digging.

I tend to think of the hyphenated “good-bye” as being from around the ’60s or earlier — I’m not exactly sure why, but that’s just the impression I have. So, I started going through my historical dictionaries:
• 1966: Hyphenated
• 1978: Hyphenated
• 1986: Hyphenated (This one surprised me!)
• 1991: Not hyphenated!

Of course, not all dictionaries change things at the same time — some may have listed “goodbye” much sooner than 1991 — but I thought this change had happened much earlier in the 20th century!

And as a side note, as I was looking into this, I learned that “goodbye” actually evolved as a contraction of “God be with ye.” “But,” you might be thinking, “it’s goodbye, not Godbye!” Well, that’s because it was influenced by greetings like “good morning” and “good afternoon” — because the greetings were used in a similar way, and because the original words/meaning weren’t really thought about anymore, the “God” part became “good”! 😁

But all of that that still doesn't answer my original question: Toyota, why are you using 20th century spelling on your modern cars??

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1901 medical book English comparison

July 17, 2023

Last night I started reading “A Manual of the Practice of Medicine” from 1901 (because yes, that’s just the type of thing I like to read for fun). In addition to learning about medical science from 100+ years ago, I’m also learning a bit about English from back then.

First of all, look at the size of those spaces between sentences! You could drive a Canyonero through them! These days, it’s standard to just put a regular, single space between sentences, but that standard didn’t really start to take hold until the ’40s. I knew that double spacing used to be the standard, but these look like at least three or four spaces each!

The next thing that caught my eye was punctuation. Look at that question mark and semicolon: They have spaces before them! This is standard in French, but I’ve never seen this anywhere in English before (even in books older than this). I’d love to know the reasoning behind it for this book.

The last thing of note is the “&c.” This is an abbreviation for “etcetera” that used to be quite common. The ampersand actually evolved as a combination of the letters “e” and “t.” Since the “et” part of “etcetera” translates to “and,” that’s why the ampersand has that meaning.

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