The First Known Uses of 6 Common Typographic Symbols

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Many of the most common symbols on our keyboards have fascinating origin stories. Some, such as the zero, we now take for granted—yet the idea of denoting an absence of value was not present in Western mathematics until introduced from the East. Other symbols, such as the hashtag or at-sign, had a variety of uses until the internet ushered in a new way of communicating and fixed them with the meanings we know today. Below are six examples of the first known usage and subsequent history of some of the most common typographic symbols.

1. AT SIGN // @

The @ (or at-sign) is usually dated to 1536 in a letter from a Florentine merchant, Francesco Lapi, who used it to mean a unit of wine called “amphorae.” But a Spanish researcher claims to have found an even earlier usage in a 1448 document, where the symbol also referred to a unit of measurement (even today, Spaniards call the @ symbol arroba, which is also a unit of weight, and some other Romance languages have similar dual meanings). Either way, the researchers think that the symbol then moved to Northern Europe, where it eventually gained the meaning of “at the price.” Other explanations have also been offered, but whatever the exact root of the symbol, its meaning eventually became known as shorthand for at, and it was generally used in written financial transactions—for example, in noting “Bob sells James 4 apples @ $1.”

The sign had largely fallen out of use by the early 1970s, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was working at what is now BBN Technologies, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tomlinson, who was working for the government on a forerunner of the internet, was trying to figure out how to address messages sent from one computer to another when he noticed the little-used @ on his computer keyboard, and used it to send a prototype email. This precedent was soon adopted as the internet developed, and the at-sign is now, of course, central to our lives.

2. ZERO // 0

The absence of a value is a complex concept, one that many ancient civilizations struggled with. The idea of a zero ultimately came to the West from the mathematicians of India, where, as in a few other cultures, zero was initially used as a placeholder, for example to indicate a lack of units, as in the number 101.

The earliest surviving usage of a zero in India has been traced to an ancient mathematical text known as the Bakhshali manuscript, which is held at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. In September 2017, radiocarbon dating indicated that the manuscript was produced as early as the 3rd or 4th century—providing us with the first known usage of zero some 500 years earlier than previously thought. As Oxford’s Bodleian Library says, “the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today."

The manuscript itself was discovered buried in a field in 1881 in what is today Pakistan. Written on 70 delicate leaves of birch bark, historians think it represents a training manual for Silk Road traders, teaching them concepts of arithmetic.

3. HASHTAG // #

Hashtag on an old typewriter key
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The origin of the hashtag (or pound sign as it's traditionally known in the U.S.) comes from scribes writing shorthand for the Latin libra pondo, which translates as "pound by weight." The abbreviation they used was lb, which was sometimes misread as 16. So, scribes took to drawing a line through the top of the two letters, which over time developed into the now familiar #. In the 1960s, the pound sign was chosen by Bell Laboratories to be a function key on their newly designed telephone keypad. (The Bell Labs team fondly nicknamed the symbol the “octothorpe,” possibly in honor of athlete Jim Thorpe.) Fast-forward to 2007, when early Twitter users wanted to be able to group and filter their feeds, so developer Chris Messina suggested they appropriate the method used in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) whereby users employed the pound sign or "hashtag" to signpost what they were chatting about. (Programmers knew the symbol as the hash, which was now being used to "tag" content.) This simple method soon caught on, and today the hashtag has become indelibly linked to the rise of social media.

4. ELLIPSIS // …

Originally, periods of silence were marked textually with a series of hyphens, but today the symbol of choice is the , a.k.a. the ellipsis. Dr. Anne Toner of Cambridge University spent years researching the ellipsis and finally discovered what she thinks is its first use—an English translation of Roman dramatist Terence’s play Andria printed in 1588. Although the play used hyphens instead of dots, the general idea caught on rapidly. (Toner notes that although there are only four “ellipses” in the 1588 translation, there are 29 in the 1627 version.) By the 18th century, dots started to replace the dashes, which an assistant professor from Southeastern University suggests may be connected to a medieval piece of punctuation called subpuncting or underdotting, which generally indicated something was incorrectly copied.

5. AMPERSAND // &

Ampersand symbol on an old metal block
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The ampersand originated in Latin when the word et (meaning and) was written in cursive script as a ligature (in which one or more letters are written together as a single glyph). One of the earliest examples was found daubed in graffiti on the walls of a house in Pompeii, where it was preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. By the 8th century the ampersand became a recognizably distinct character, but the word ampersand did not come into use until the late 18th/19th century, when English school children would recite "and per se and" meaning “and by itself means and” to help remember the symbol (per se being Latin for "by itself"). One of the most thorough investigations into the typographic history of the ampersand comes courtesy of German graphic designer Jan Tschichold, who in 1953 published The am­persand: its ori­gin and de­vel­op­ment, in which he collected numerous examples of the ampersand from the 1st century onwards, visually charting its developing form.

6. PLUS SIGN // +

A variety of ceramic plus signs
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The plus sign used for addition in mathematics likely derives from a shorthand ligature for the Latin et meaning “and” and was probably in use for a long time before a surviving example appeared in print. One candidate for the earliest surviving usage is in French philosopher and polymath Nicole Oresme's Algorismus proportionum, a manuscript handwritten between 1356 and 1361, although scholars debate whether it's a true plus symbol. The first use of a plus sign in a printed book is more definitive, and can be found in a 1489 edition of Johannes Widmann’s Mercantile Arithmetic. Widmann also uses the minus sign for the first time in print in this volume—although both plus and minus signs relate not to addition and subtraction but to surpluses and deficits in business accounting. After this usage, the plus sign began to appear more frequently in German mathematical texts, and first appeared in an English text in 1557 in Robert Recorde’s The Whetstone of Witte—which also introduced the equals sign.

11 Things You Might Not Know About Sports Night

ABC
ABC

Before there was The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, or The Newsroom, there was Sports Night. Premiering in the fall of 1998, Aaron Sorkin's freshman foray into television told the story of a late-night sports news show and the personalities that made it run, both in front of and behind the camera. Here are 11 things you might not know about the two-season dramedy, on its 20th anniversary.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A BOOK.

Originally, it didn't occur to Sorkin to think about Sports Night as a television series. He thought it might make an interesting book, and his agent at the time suggested a movie might be better—"Kind of a Broadcast News set in a SportsCenter place," Sorkin explained to TV Guide. "But I had a hard time thinking of a two-hour story to tell. It all seemed episodic to me, like small stories. I dismissed it, because it didn't occur to me to do a television series." A few years later, Sorkin found himself pitching the idea to ABC.

2. IT IS LOOSELY BASED ON SPORTSCENTER.

Shortly after Sports Night's premiere, Keith Olbermann—former co-host of ESPN's SportsCenter—couldn't help but notice the similarities between Sports Night’s fictional anchors Dan Rydell (played by Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (played by Peter Krause) and he and his SportsCenter co-host, Dan Patrick, respectively. After asking Sports Illustrated, "How much more of my life can these people borrow before they have to pay me?" Esquire sat Olbermann and Sorkin down together to hash it out. When Olbermann commented that "I have heard various stories about the origin of this series," Sorkin quickly confirmed that, "You are the origin. I sat in [a] hotel room for 13 months writing The American President. To keep me company, I would have SportsCenter on. I'd watch The Big Show four times in a row, and I thought it was the best-written show on television. It turned me into a big-time sports fan. As soon as I was done with The American President, I told [then-ABC head] Jamie Tarses, 'Send me off and let me write a pilot.'" Craig Kilborn has also long been rumored as part of the inspiration for Krause's McCall.

3. AARON SORKIN SPENT SOME TIME ON THE ESPN CAMPUS.

In order to research the series, Sorkin spent some time observing the goings-on at ESPN's main campus in Bristol, Connecticut. And it's there that he found the inspiration for Felicity Huffman's character, Dana Whitaker. "When I visited ESPN, I was very impressed with a particular producer who was juggling about a hundred things at once," Sorkin said. "She was the inspiration for casting a woman in the role of producer of Sports Night."

4. THE NETWORK INSISTED ON USING A LAUGH TRACK.

Given that Sports Night was a rather unconventional comedy, the network executives at ABC were worried that audiences wouldn’t get Sorkin’s sense of humor so they insisted on using a laugh track, much to everyone's dismay. "The network was looking for any touchstones that would make it feel like more of a traditional half-hour, and one of them was the laugh track," Sorkin told Entertainment Weekly in 2014. "By the second season, they said, 'You don’t have to use it anymore.' On those occasions when I go back and watch an old episode, that laugh track sounds so terrible." Added co-star Joshua Malina: "Would The Office have worked with a laugh track? No. At the time, studio executives were going, 'You don’t want to have a laugh track? But how are people going to know that it’s funny?'"

5. IT OVERLAPPED WITH THE WEST WING.

On September 22, 1999—exactly one year after Sports Night premiered—Sorkin's much beloved political drama, The West Wing, made its debut. While Sports Night struggled to find its audience (despite three Emmy wins and a Golden Globe nomination), The West Wing was an immediate hit, so much so that many people blame Sports Night's ultimate disappearance from the air after just two seasons on The West Wing. When ABC announced that it was canceling Sports Night, other channels—HBO and Showtime reportedly among them—came calling. But Sorkin decided that his attention would be better focused on The West Wing.

"While we received several intriguing offers for Sports Night to continue on another network, there were many other factors that were important for us to consider," Sorkin and his producing partner Thomas Schlamme said in a press statement. "We are tremendously proud of the two seasons' worth of episodes that aired on ABC and felt committed to reviving the show only if this creative integrity could continue. When we considered everything involved in making this happen, we felt it best for Sports Night to remain untarnished creatively."

6. JOSHUA MALINA WANTED TO PLAY DAN RYDELL.


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Joshua Malina originally auditioned for the role of Dan Rydell. "I immediately fixated on what would ultimately become Josh Charles’ role of Dan," Malina told Entertainment Weekly. "I thought it was perfect for me." But Sorkin knew he wanted Malina in the cast, so he decided to rewrite the role of researcher Jeremy Goodwin to Malina's strengths.

"Aaron called, and he was like, 'Hey, do you remember the role of Jeremy in the pilot?,'" Malina recalled. "As it was originally written, he was 21. And I was 30 at the time. He’s like, 'I know he’s young, but what if I took another pass at it?' And he started describing what he might do, and I just interrupted him and said, 'Are you trying to convince me? Yes! I would play anything in this!'"

7. ROBERT GUILLAUME REALLY DID HAVE A STROKE.

In January 1999, Robert Guillaume, who played managing editor Isaac Jaffe, suffered a stroke while on the set and was immediately rushed to the hospital, where he insisted that "I haven't had a stroke. I can't have a stroke. Disney doesn't allow it. Not during business hours." In order to explain his absence from part of the first season, Sorkin wrote his stroke into the series. He returned at the end of season one. Guillaume passed away of prostate cancer on October 24, 2017, just one month away from his 90th birthday.

8. CASEY MCCALL MADE A SPIN CITY CAMEO.

In 1999, Peter Krause made a cameo as Casey McCall in an episode of Spin City, which immediately preceded Sports Night on ABC's Tuesday night lineup. In the episode, Mike (Michael J. Fox's character) and his girlfriend watch the show-within-the-show version of Sports Night, which then segued into the evening's actual episode.

9. THE SHOW WASN'T LACKING IN CRITICAL ACCLAIM.

Though it struggled to find an audience, Sports Night was never lacking in critical acclaim. The show was nominated for eight Emmy Awards during its two-season run, and won three of them, including Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for Thomas Schlamme (for the pilot). In 2000, Felicity Huffman scored a Golden Globe nod for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV-Series - Comedy/Musical.

10. ITS "LOW" RATINGS WERE ACTUALLY PRETTY HIGH.

Though low ratings are often cited as the main reason for Sports Night's cancellation after two seasons, it averaged about 11.5 million viewers per week. If Sports Night were still on the air, it would be one of ABC's highest rated shows.

11. IN 2014, KEITH OLBERMANN CO-HOSTED WITH HIS ON-SCREEN ALTER EGO.

In 2014, Josh Charles reprised his role as Dan Rydell on The Big Show with Keith Olbermann. The pair reenacted Sports Night with highlights and witty banter, and allowed Olbermann to poke a little fun at Sorkin.

13 Facts About Notre-Dame Cathedral

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iStock

Constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, Notre-Dame de Paris has centuries of French history built into its stone. The Gothic cathedral reflects the prominent role of Paris as an economic and spiritual center in the 12th century, and its scars from the French Revolution are reminders of its long connection with the monarchy—a connection that almost resulted in its demolition. Yet although thousands of tourists enter its doors each day to photograph its rose windows and flying buttresses, this sacred destination still has its secrets. Here are 13 lesser-known facts about Notre-Dame de Paris.

1. A PAGAN CITY LIES BELOW THE CATHEDRAL.

The Île-de-la-Cité on which Notre-Dame de Paris now stands was once a Gallo-Roman city known as Lutetia. The cathedral may have been built right over remnants of a temple: Around 1710, pieces of a sculpted altar dedicated to Jupiter and other deities were discovered during an excavation under the choir (although it remains unclear if this is evidence of an ancient temple, or if the pieces were recycled there from another location). Additional architectural ruins found in the 1960s and '70s, many dating back to this ancient era, lie in the archaeological crypt located beneath the square just in front of Notre-Dame.

2. THERE'S SOME RECYCLED ARCHITECTURE ON ITS FAÇADE.

The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame
The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame

There are three portals on the western façade of Notre-Dame, each laden with sculpted saints and sacred scenes. One doesn't seem to fit, however—the Portal Sainte-Anne has a much earlier style than the rest. Its figures, such as the central Virgin and Child, look stiffer in their poses and less natural in their features compared to the other statues. That's because this tympanum, or semi-circular area of decoration, was recycled from a previous Romanesque church. A close examination in 1969 revealed that it was not originally made for this space, and had been adapted to fit the Gothic structure.

3. THERE'S A "FOREST" IN ITS ROOF.

The cathedral contains one of the oldest surviving wood-timber frames in Paris, involving around 52 acres of trees that were cut down in the 12th century. Each beam is made from an individual tree. For this reason, the lattice of historic woodwork is nicknamed "the Forest."

4. ITS FLYING BUTTRESSES WERE GOTHIC TRENDSETTERS.

Low angle view of the East end of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral at sunset with flying buttresses
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The cathedral was one of the earliest structures built with exterior flying buttresses. They were constructed around its nave in the 12th century to lend support to the thin walls, after the need for more light in the incredibly tall church required larger windows, and thus greater supports. The exposed flying buttresses became an iconic aspect of Gothic design, and although there's some debate over whether Notre-Dame was the first church to have them, they certainly set the trend in sacred architecture.

5. TWENTY-EIGHT OF ITS KINGS LOST THEIR HEADS IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

In 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution, 28 statues of biblical kings in the cathedral were pulled down with ropes and decapitated by a mob. (King Louis XVI was guillotined earlier that year, and any iconography tied to the monarchy was under attack.) The mutilated stones were eventually tossed in a trash heap, which the Minister of the Interior dealt with by ordering the material be repurposed for construction. It wasn't until 1977 that the heads of 21 of these kings were rediscovered during work on the basement of the French Bank of Foreign Trade. Now they're at the nearby Musée de Cluny.

6. THE TOWERS ARE NOT TWINS.

The two towers of Notre-Dame
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At first glance, Notre-Dame’s two towers appear like identical twins. Closer examination reveals that the north tower is in fact a bit bigger than the south. As with all the elements of the cathedral, they were built over time, and reflect how the cathedral is more of a collage of architectural trends and leadership than the culmination of one person’s vision.

7. ITS BELLS WERE ONCE MELTED DOWN FOR ARTILLERY.

The kings weren’t the only part of Notre-Dame destroyed during the French Revolution. The cathedral, like other churches around France, was transformed in the late 18th century from a Christian space and rededicated to the new Cult of Reason. All 20 of its bells—except the colossal 1681 bourdon called Emmanuel—were removed and melted down to make cannons.

While the bells at Notre-Dame were replaced in the 19th century, the new instruments were not as finely made as the older versions, and made a more dissonant noise when clanging. Finally, in 2013, a new ensemble of bells restored the cathedral to its 17th-century sound, with the deeply resonant Emmanuel still joining in the toll on special occasions.

8. NAPOLÉON AND VICTOR HUGO SAVED IT.

When Napoléon Bonaparte decided to have his 1804 coronation as emperor in Notre-Dame, the building was in bad shape. Centuries of decay as the city developed and changed around it, as well as the vandalism of the French Revolution, had left it on the verge of demolition. For years it had been used as little more than a warehouse. So when Napoléon declared its return to church use, and hosted his grand ceremony within his walls—an event in which he famously crowned himself—it brought Notre-Dame to new prominence.

Nevertheless, the coronation didn’t fix its structural deterioration. Then author Victor Hugo used the building as a personification of France itself in his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris. (The book’s name is often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, yet the hunchbacked bell ringer Quasimodo is not the main character; the central figure is Notre-Dame.) And Hugo vividly evoked its decrepit 19th-century state:

“But noble as it has remained while growing old, one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man, regardless alike of Charlemagne, who laid the first stone, and Philip Augustus, who laid the last. On the face of this ancient queen of our cathedrals, beside each wrinkle one invariably finds a scar. 'Tempus edax, homo edacior,' which I would be inclined to translate: 'Time is blind, but man is senseless.'”

The book was a success, and the momentum led to a major restoration overseen by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

9. ITS MONSTERS ARE MODERN, NOT MEDIEVAL.

Gargoyle and wide city view from the roof of Notre-Dame
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Some of the most popular images of Notre-Dame are from the perspective of its gargoyles or chimera (the carved monsters that don’t act as waterspouts). Few visitors would guess that the fantastic creatures now on the cathedral weren't there until the 19th century; they were added between 1843 and 1864 during the radical restoration overseen by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

Hugo had described gargoyles extensively in Notre-Dame de Paris, and Viollet-le-Duc was reportedly inspired by this romantic vision of the past. A daguerreotype from before this overhaul shows a building more stark than the one we know today, with no beasts perched on its towers, its medieval gargoyles having long been removed. Unfortunately, many of the 19th-century gargoyles are now decaying; PVC pipes have taken the place of those that have been taken down for safety.

The gargoyles were far from the only fanciful addition by the architect Viollet-le-Duc. Among the 12 apostles he had installed around the new spire, he included himself as the face of Saint Thomas.

10. ITS SPIRE IS A SAINTLY LIGHTNING ROD.

Look way to the top of the spire and you'll spy a rooster. This is not a purely decorative bird. In 1935, three tiny relics—an alleged piece of the Crown of Thorns and some bits of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve (the city's patron saints)—were secured inside the metal bird’s body. The idea, the story goes, was to create a sort of spiritual lightning rod to protect the parishioners within.

11. THE ORGAN IS THOUGHT TO BE THE LARGEST IN FRANCE.

The Notre-Dame organ involves almost 8000 pipes (some dating back to the 18th century) played with five keyboards, making it the biggest pipe organ in France (although some claim that Saint-Eustache has a larger one). While there are some slashes on the wood of the organ loft—damage from the French Revolution, when its fleur-de-lis symbols were carved off—it was restored in 2013 to mark the 850th anniversary of the cathedral.

12. ALL ROADS LEAD TO NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS.

Point Zero marker outside Notre-Dame in Paris
Jean-Pierre Bazard, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Mostly overlooked beneath the crowds of tourists milling around outside Notre-Dame is a diminutive circular marker with an eight-pointed bronze star embedded in the cobblestones. It’s engraved with the words Point zéro des routes de France, and is the point from which distances are measured from Paris to other cities in France. It was placed there in 1924, although it had to be temporarily dislodged in the 1960s during the excavations for what was intended to be an underground parking garage. Those construction plans were thwarted when workers turned up architectural ruins—now kept in the archaeological crypt.

13. BEES LIVE ON ITS ROOF.

On the Notre-Dame sacristy, adjacent to the cathedral, is a small hive of bees. It was installed in 2013, with Buckfast bees—a strain developed by a monk named Brother Adam and known for its gentleness—living in its hives. Their honey is made from the flowering plants in nearby gardens, including the Square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral. According to The New York Times, the sweet stuff is given away to the poor.

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