In 1962, Manhattan advertising executive Martin K. Speckter was unhappy. Unhappy with words, the tools of his trade, and unhappy with punctuation. Bored by the usual methods of conveying delight typographically—laundry whites brighter!, new cars faster!—Speckter wanted something with more oomph.
His answer? Take the question and exclamation marks often found together at the end of shock-transmitting sentences (“You won how much money at poker?!”) and merge them into a single typographical symbol: . Speckter called his invention the “interrobang,” a neologism that combines “interrogation” with “bang” (printer-speak for the exclamation mark).
Speckter hoped his symbol would catch on, and help people to express that hard-to-capture middle state between excitement and inquiry: incredulity. Sadly, the interrobang dropped off the radar soon after its introduction. While a few typewriter companies like Remington Rand were willing to include an interrobang keycap, most were reluctant to add new symbols to their machines.
But forty years later, the interrobang is poised for a comeback. Websites have cropped up in its defence (“The purpose of this page,” reads the intro to interrobang-mks.com, “is to move the INTERROBANG from the obscure to the ubiquitous”), and the symbol is now available in the Microsoft Word font Wingdings 2.
Some language purists continue to resist the interrobang’s advances. On typophile.com, type designer John Hudson posted that he doesn’t believe the interrobang even counts as a punctuation mark. “It’s a kind of extra-grammatical and informal expressive mark,” he writes. And Erik Spiekermann, a German designer renowned in the type community for creating the fonts Officina and Meta, considers the interrobang ugly and swears he will never use it. “It is too dense in the middle, making it less legible than the combination of the two separate marks !?,” he says.
The interrobang’s visual bizarreness, however, might just be it greatest strength. Being unfamiliar to most, it has the capacity to pique interest and reinforce the effect of frenzied sentences such as “Can you believe that guy.” “Are you breaking up with me” or, quite simply, “WTF”
Speckter can even be said to be a pioneer, anticipating our present predilection for shorthand and abbreviation. The very technology that allows for the interrobang’s wider dissemination—e-mail, text-messaging and online games—is also the ideal medium for it. Welcome to Incredulity 2.0.