The late, lamented Terry Pratchett may have had a point. Is there are more controversial punctuation mark used today? Elmore Leonard wrote that “you are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of Prose” while F Scott Fitzgerald likened their use to laughing at your own jokes. I try to ration my usage of them but on social media it is often a rarity to see a message without one.
Those who have had the joy of reading ancient texts will know that they were written in scriptio continua, with all the words running into each other without a break. This meant that not only did the person looking at the text have to be able to read but also know enough grammar to be able to make sense of the string of letters before them. It was not until the 6th century that certain literary conventions that we take for granted such as spacing between words and elementary forms of punctuation began to be introduced. The exclamation mark emerged sometime after that.
In Latin, Io means joy. Perhaps to bring a bit of joy into their lives, medieval scribes would put the “I” above the “o”. Over time the “o” became a dot and, lo! the exclamation mark was born. It is difficult to date precisely when the exclamation mark was used purely to add emphasis to a word or sentence rather than being shorthand for “Io” but the earliest example of the mark can be seen in a manuscript written by Coluccio Salutati in 1399. Some think that it was the Italian poet, Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia who came up with the idea of the exclamation mark slightly earlier in the 14th century, giving it the name of punctus admirativus, the admiration mark.
Grammarians used the term as the designated name for this form of punctuation until some time in the 17th century when the exclamation mark emerged as an alternative descriptor for the punctuation mark. By the 18th century, though, there began to emerge a subtle differentiation between the occasions when the mark would be called an “admiration mark” and when it was more appropriate to deem it an “exclamation mark”.
According to James Hoy, the note of admiration was used for circumstances which “intimated some sudden passion of the mind” while a note of exclamation was reserved solely for “crying out”. We can perhaps deduce from this that the principal distinction between the two was that between joy and anguish. When the mark was associated with rapture, amazement, and wonder it was termed “admiration” but its use in association with disgust, grief, and anger marked it out as the mark of exclamation.
Such subtleties may have kept the grammarians and pedants happy, but for the majority of people this rather contrived distinction served no necessary purpose as whether they exclaimed in joy or anger they were exclaiming. By the end of the 19th century exclamation had won out over admiration, the Stanford Dictionary of Anglicised Words and Phrases noting in its 1892 edition that the note of admiration is “now called the note of exclamation”. All that was left was for “note of” to drop out of use to be replaced by “mark”.
Controversial as the use of exclamation marks may be to some, places such as the North Devon village of Westward Ho! and the gloriously named Quebecois village of Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! Are proud to display the exclamation mark. Saint-Louis is the only place in the world to use of them, whether in joy or anger I know not.
Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, they are here to stay!