Hyphens & Hashtags*: *The stories behind the symbols on our keyboards

Claire Cock-Starkey (Bodleian Library, 2021), 192pp, £12.99 (hardback)
ISBN 978 1851 245 36 9

Reviewed by Louise Bolotin

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I’m old enough to remember going into a greengrocer’s as a child with my mother and seeing the chalked @ symbol next to the price for apples. Claire Cock-Starkey has traced the origin of @ (at) to 16th-century Italy, when merchants used it to price multiple goods in place of ‘at a rate of’, such as an ironmonger pricing 20 nails @ 10p each. But even before this use dropped out of favour, computer scientists in the early 1970s had hit on it as a way to connect programmers to each other with a unique address. It’s pretty obvious when you consider that [email protected] is the logical follow-up to Bob Smith (lives) at 32 Acacia Avenue. Since then it’s become the social media standard for deep-linking someone’s name with how to contact them. You can follow me on Twitter (at) @louisebolotin, for example.

Hyphens & Hashtags is the story of the signs on our keyboards, and it’s a treasure trove of such historical journeys. I had no idea that the humble hash sign – # – was once used to denote a pound weight by medieval scribes. But it was Twitter again where it first morphed into the hashtag, used as a filter for topics you want to follow, such as #editor or #CIEP, before wider adoption across other social media.

These kinds of keyboard symbols are called glyphs, and Cock-Starkey has a whole section on the changing uses of $, &, /, €, * and © (separated by commas here, so you know I’m not swearing at you – another popular use of these). And though not strictly glyphs, she dips into the origins of emoticons that use punctuation like :-) and ;-) to indicate a smile or a wink. There are sections on punctuation and mathematical symbols – these entries are less entertaining but nonetheless important if you care about the right way to use them these days (as opposed to back then).

This is very much a book to dip into, with its nerdy short entries. Often amusing, occasionally sedate and generally very thoughtful, it lacks the gravitas of a scholarly work. Cock-Starkey offers no sources for what was clearly a labour of love – serious readers will query whether at least some of the many intriguing tales are true, without the references to back them up. It would make a great stocking filler, though.

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