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What’s an Interrobang?!

If you’re looking for something to celebrate this summer during the July Fourth-Labor Day holiday drought, here’s an idea: 2022 is the 60th anniversary of the interrobang.

“The interrobang?!” you say.

Yes. It’s a punctuation mark concocted in 1962 by advertising executive Martin K. Spekter and merges a question mark and exclamation point—i.e. ‽—to convey incredulity bordering on shock: “You’re going out dressed like that‽” or “Wait a minute—you painted our kitchen avocado‽” Italics are optional.

Alas, like Google Glass and Betamax, the interrobang never caught on, although at least two entities—the UK publisher Pearson Education and the State Library of New South Wales—use it as their logo. The term is a mash-up of “interrogation” and “bang”—printers’ jargon for “exclamation point.” You can type an interrobang yourself, but the keystroke combination will take some fancy finger gymnastics.

To be sure, copywriters and editors have been using question marks and exclamation points in tandem—though without shmushing them together—for eons. But care must be taken lest an unmelded ! inadvertently morph into a self-mocking !? In 1986, the City Council of Hamilton, Ohio, decided a bit of creative punctuation was all that was needed to revitalize a sagging economy and changed the official spelling of Hamilton to Hamilton! But the idea flopped when straightforward media queries (e.g. “Where is Hamilton?”) turned in to snarky jibes (“Where is Hamilton!?”) The mark came off a few years later.

A similar trap awaited Jeb Bush, whose 2016 campaign for president branded as a hyper-pumped Jeb! “Can you feel the excitement?!,” wrote Jack Moore in The Washington Post. “No? Well neither could anyone else.” At a campaign stop in New Hampshire, a reporter pressed the candidate about the ill-chosen punctuation mark a bit too hard. Mr. Bush was not pleased: “Take a hike, man,” he said.

The reporter, by the way, was from Yahoo! News. Yahoo!, of course, has incorporated an exclamation point (sans question mark) since forever—but for eminently practical reasons. The internet behemoth came into the world in the early 1990s as “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” When the founders settled on “Yahoo” as a less clunky and more memorable name, they found it was already taken by a barbecue sauce company. Adding ! solved the problem.

So here’s to Martin K. Spekter. Happy Interrobang Day!