The word punctuation showed up in English in in the 1530s. Its source was a Latin word meaning to mark or point with dots, to prick or pierce. By the 1660s punctuation had morphed to mean a system of inserting pauses into written material.
In the 1200s, the word question appeared in English, meaning a philosophical or theological problem. It came to us from Latin through an Old French word that meant question, problem, interrogation or torture. Hmmm. It wasn’t until 1849 that an orthographic mark denoting a question was referred to as a question mark (before that we called such a thing an interrogation point).
In the 1300s the term exclamation made its way to English from Latin through Middle French. By 1824, the exclamation point could be used to denote surprise or increased volume. It wasn’t named the exclamation mark until 1926, and what a crying shame we lost the intermediary term for it, the shriek-mark.
The colon, period, & comma have more interesting tales to tell. They didn’t start out as orthographic marks at all. Each of them started out as a part of a sentence — as a string of words.
The word colon was first used to denote a limb, member, or part of a verse. This meaning morphed in the mid-1500s to mean a clause of a sentence. In time, we began to call the punctuation mark that sets off a list or independent clause a colon.
The word comma also first denoted part of a sentence; a short phrase or clause of a sentence or poem. Comma comes from a Greek word that meant that piece which is cut off. Now a comma is that orthographic mark that signifies a break between parts.
And period came to us through Latin and Middle French from Greek, where it meant a going around (it’s related to perimeter). By the time period made its way to Latin, one of its meanings was a complete sentence, & darned if we didn’t start using period to denote the mark that shows we’ve come to the end of a sentence.
What a wacky language. I’d love to hear whether any of this surprised you.
My thanks go out to this week’s sources, Etymonline.com, Merriam-Webster.com, Wordnik, Collins Dictionary, & the OED.
I write for teens & tweens, bake bread, play music, and ponder the wonder of words in a foggy little town on California's central coast.
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