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The Interrobang is Back: An American punctation mark.

By: Allan Haley
An American punctuation mark
The interrobang was introduced in 1962 by Martin Speckter, head of a New York advertising and public relations agency and editor of a magazine called Type Talks. In a Type Talks article, Speckter declared that advertising copywriters needed a new mark to punctuate exclamatory rhetorical questions common in advertising headlines (for example: “What?! Whiter than White?!”). In this type of copy, neither an exclamation point nor a question mark (used alone) could fully convey the writer´s intent.

Speckter´s solution was to combine the two marks into a single symbol. Speckter invited readers of Type Talks to coin a name for the new mark, with the stipulation that all proposed names derive from genuine language roots. Suggestions ranged from the simple “rhet” to the tongue-twisting “exclarotive.” Of the names submitted Speckter favored “exclamaquest” and “interrobang” and finally chose the latter.

Ideas for how the new punctuation mark should look also poured in. Some designs were more imaginative than practical, but most indicated that the mark be drawn as an exclamation point centered in a question mark, both sharing a common dot.

Riches to rags
The interrobang began to appear in print almost immediately. Since it wasn´t available in type, the character was drawn by lettering artists or constructed with single-edged razor blades and rubber cement. Speckter appeared on television to talk about his invention, and major magazines and newspapers ran articles on the interrobang.
The interrobang finally made it into a font of type when Richard Isbell created Americana for American Type Founders in 1967. (Some people have incorrectly credited Mr. Isbell with the invention of the mark.) Shortly after Americana´s release, the interrobang appeared on the keyboard of the new Remington typewriter and was added to several dictionaries.The interrobang was riding high. But then, like bell bottom pants (which eventually made a comeback) and Hula Hoops (which didn´t), the interrobang´s popularity faded. No additional type fonts included the design. It was dropped form typewriter keyboards. Even advertising copywriters abandoned the character that was created expressly for them. A dozen years later, type designers at Compugraphic Corporation (now Agfa Miles) saw the interrobang in the ATF type brochure and fell in love with the cute little character. As a result, Compugraphic included ATF´s Americana (with interrobang) in its phototype library; the character also appeared in several other designs issued by the company.

Unfortunately, not one of the freshly minted interrobangs saw the light of day outside of the Compugraphic lettering office. The reason? Phototypesetting machines were limited in their available character complement. With just over 100 character positions, there simply wasn´t room for the interrobang. The character slipped into oblivion once more.

Now that a dozen more years have passed, type designers have again rediscovered this overexcited little character. Will the larger character sets of digital fonts actually allow for the use of the interrobang? Let´s hope so - or else we may have to wait till the year 2006 for another chance.

Allan Haley is president of Resolution, a knowledge development company dedicated to helping people in corporate and publishing environments communicate better. Mr. Haley is a regular contributor to publications such as Dynamic Graphics and Step-By-Step Graphics. He has written four books on type and graphic communication. You can contact Allan at fontsmart@aol.com.
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