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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

5 Characters from the Margins of Ancient Texts

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Keith Houston's new book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, is available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore, Indiebound, and Powell's.

The margins of books have always been a playground for their readers’ notes, doodles, and questions. From the Library of Alexandria to Europe’s medieval monasteries, here are five ancient symbols that helped readers make sense of their books.

1. Paragraphos

Ménandre: Sicyoniens; MP 3 1308.1. inv. 2272 e. Image courtesy of Jean Gascou of the Institut de Papyrologie, Paris Sorbonne.

An ancient Greek of Homer’s time would have had their work cut out when it came to reading. Documents were written so that their text flowed from left to right and back again, like a farmer plowing a field, with no spaces between words, capital letters, or punctuation to help them find their way. The one glimmer in the darkness was provided by the paragraphos, a simple horizontal stroke drawn beside or just under a line of text. A paragraphos (from para-, “beside,” and graphein, “to write”) told the reader that there was something of interest in the associated text, though not what that thing was: It could be a change in speaker in a play, a new chapter, or anything else besides, and it was up to the reader to decipher its meaning.

2. Diple

Diples, an obelos, and paragraphoi in a reproduction of Homer. (“Book 12.” In Homeri Ilias Cum Scholiis. Codex Venetus A, Marcianus 454 Phototypice Editus, 161v. Lugduni Batavorum: A. W. Sijthoff, 1901.) Courtesy of Stoa.org.

Punctuation, from the Latin punctus, or “point,” first appeared at the library of Alexandria in Egypt during the third century BC. While the paragraphos was for writers, points were for readers: Texts were often read aloud, and readers would mark up their works with points placed at different heights (·, ., and ˙) to indicate pauses of increasing duration. Only a generation later, editors and copyeditors too were granted their own dedicated marks, beginning with the diple, or “double” (>, ⸖, or ·>). Made popular by Aristarchus, a scholar editing Homer’s epic poetry, the diple was like the paragraphos in that it was used to highlight a line containing some interesting feature. But where the paragraphos evolved into the pilcrow (¶), or paragraph mark, the diple instead gave rise to the inverted commas (“ ”) used to surround words quoted from other texts.

3. Asterisk

A bevy of asterisks in a reproduction of Homer. (“Book 1.” In Homeri Ilias Cum Scholiis. Codex Venetus A, Marcianus 454 Phototypice Editus, 33r. Lugduni Batavorum: A. W. Sijthoff, 1901.) Courtesy of Stoa.org.

Aristarchus, the ancient Greek scholar who popularized the diple, is famous for the palette of “Aristarchean” marks with which he edited texts: the diple, the asteriskos, and the obelos. The asteriskos, or “little star,” was placed alongside lines that had been mistakenly duplicated; mistakes were numerous because texts were copied by hand, and Homer’s ancient poetry was riddled with errors. The asteriskos (※), of course, became the modern asterisk (*), which can still be found in the margin (albeit at the bottom of the page) where it acts as a footnote reference. Nowadays the asterisk is often applied to the names of athletes or celebrities who have been somehow embarrassed or discredited, implying that their achievements come with an accusing footnote. Lance Armstrong, who doped his way to seven Tours de France, and George W. Bush, whose 2000 election victory was won in the courts, have both been criticized by journalists wielding asterisks.

4. Dagger

Daggers and double daggers, or dieses. Top row, left to right: Linotype Didot, Big Caslon (Carter & Cone Type), Hoefler Text (Apple), and Zapfino (Linotype); bottom row, left to right: Helvetica (Linotype), Skia (Apple), Courier New (Microsoft), and Museo Slab (Jos Buivenga). Image by the author.

The obelos, or “roasting spit,” was the third and last of Aristarchus’s marks. The dash-like obelos (—, though it was sometime decorated with a pair of dots to give ÷) was placed alongside lines to be deleted, with one seventh century writer explaining that “like an arrow, [the obelos] slays the superfluous and pierces the false.” Over the centuries the obelos morphed into the dagger (†), which has maintained its partnership with the asterisk through thick and thin. Both symbols are used to link footnotes to the main body of text, though in some European countries they have an extra meaning, telling readers when someone was born—“Herman Melville (*1819)”—or when they died—“(†1891).” The dagger is often now confused with the Christian cross, and many fonts include daggers that are simply crosses by another name.

5. Manicule

A very pious manicule drawn in the margin of an early printed book. Image courtesy of the Penn Provenance Project.

As writers started to borrow the punctuation and other marks (like the diple) that readers and editors had once used, readers found themselves without a standard way to highlight interesting text. Towards the end of the medieval period, when a new wave of secular scholarship swept across Europe, a new mark appeared that let readers do just that. The manicule, index, or pointing hand (☞) cropped up in the margins of Renaissance manuscripts wherever readers found a sentence or paragraph they wished to highlight for future reference. Some of these pointing hands were little more than bookmarks, while others came with voluminous sleeves on which their creators added their thoughts on the text. Manicules were not just for stuffy, academic notes, either: Instead of pointing hands, some readers chose to annotate their books with spidery octopuses or even little pointing penises.

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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Getty Images

Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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