punctuation, part i

"Hodos." Doodle by me.
“Hodos.” Doodle by me.

Recently, I reviewed the delightful Punctuation..? by User design. Since school is back in session, I thought a review of punctuation marks–that is, the origins of their curious names–may prove timely and instructive.

Many of the names for our punctuation marks exhibit a common trend we see here on the Mashed Radish, especially for scholarly or technical words (Oxford Companion to the English Language): They come from Ancient Greek and typically passed into English from Latin, sometimes directly and often via French.

The story of punctuation itself is a fascinating one, especially given that many of our punctuation marks originally were about speaking, not writing, used to help orators recite materials. Not to mention that spaces–yes, spaces between words in writing–are a relatively recent innovation.

Writ large, manuscript production and printing technology–and the ensuing growth in literacy propelling a shift from oral culture to text culture–are behind some of the major changes in punctuation use.

Keith Huston, author of the well-reviewed Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, offers us a nice briefing on punctuation, as this will give you a taste:

Punctuation itself – literally, the act of adding “points” to a text – did not arrive until the third century BC, when Aristophanes of the great Library at Alexandria described a series of middle (·), low (.) and high points (˙) denoting short, medium and long pauses. Over the centuries, this system gave rise to punctuation as we know it: from Aristophanes’ three dots came the colon, the full stop, and many other marks besides. At the same time the paragraphs evolved into the “pilcrow”, a C-shaped mark (¶) placed at the start of each new section in a text. The word space was a late arrival, appearing only when monks in medieval England and Ireland began splitting apart unfamiliar Latin texts to make them easier to read.

Indeed, as Huston points out, punctuation is ultimately from pungere, “to prick.” Punctualpuncturepungentpoignant, and point are all related. Its earliest use as punctuation referred to the “pointing of the psalms” in the 16th century (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology). This was a technique of marking the religious texts to aid phrasing for singing.

For this series on punctuation, we’ll start with commacolon, and period. Together, they all started out in Ancient Greek, naming a part of a sentence, particularly in terms of the length of an utterance in a rhetorical discourse or poetry. Various marks came to be used to aid in their delivery. Now, we use the name for the symbols rather than what the symbols were setting off.


The word comma as we refer to it came about in the early 1500s.

In shape and sound, comma is virtually unchanged from the Greek komma, where it referred to a “short clause” (Liddell & Scott) of a sentence and is said to mean, literally, “a piece cut off.” The word is cut off, so to speak, from the Proto-Indo-European *kop-,to beat” or “strike.”

Other derivatives include, if you can believe it, hatchet and hoof. The latter, for example, features a classic Indo-European sound change, where a Proto-Indo-European /k/ systematically evolved to an /h/ in Germanic languages, the /p/ to an /f/.

Speaking of rubleskopek, a Russian for “spear” and 1/100th of a ruble, is also derived from *kop-.


Colon came onto the English scene as we now know it not long after comma did.

Ancient Greek had two colons, one with a short o and the other with a long o. (I could make a joke here, but that would be a bit…jejune. Eh?) The former kolon gives us the intestinal, the latter kolon the punctuational. Like its short counterpart, this kolon was also bodily: It meant a “limb,” later taking on a metaphorical meaning as “member,” becoming a member of sentence, or a “clause” (Liddell & Scott).

The Greek has been traced back to the Proto-Indo-European *(s)kel-, “crooked,” with derivatives like isosceles and scoliosis originally “referring to a bent or curved part of the body, such as leg, heel, knee, or hip.”


The sentencing-end mark, the period, is a bit later to the scene, on the page right around 1600. It comes from the Greek periodos, which literally meant “a going around,” then adopted, as now, to name circuits and cycles. The Ancient Greek rhetoricians came to use the term for a “well-rounded sentence” (Liddell & Scott).

The word is composed of two parts. First is peri, meaning “around.” At root is the prolific Proto-Indo-European *per-, with a basic meaning of “through” or “beyond” but taking on a great range of extended senses (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots).

The second is hodos, a “way” or “path,” from the Proto-Indo-European *sed-, which Greek turned into words that give us everything from episode to synod.

In upcoming installments for this series, we will visit the word origins of familiar friends like apostrophe and hyphen as well as the rarer acquaintances we have in ampersand or asterisk.

 m ∫ r ∫


8 thoughts on “punctuation, part i

  1. Excellent post. Punctuation and their rules (and also how and when to break them!) are some of my favorite parts of language to study. Thanks for these history lessons on the origins of punctuation.


  2. As a non-American I can never get used to period. The rest of the English speaking world call it a full stop and it works very well for us.


    1. Ha! Rhetorically, we will make use of “full stop” for extra emphasis in American English, as President Barack Obama recently employed regarding the release of captured soldier Berghdal: “Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop.” Read the second paragraph under “The Period” for some insights into a printmaking time when “period” and “full stop” were meaningfully different: http://books.google.com/books?id=hVc2AQAAMAAJ&pg=PA278#v=onepage&q&f=false


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