Nathan's column: A sort-of exciting proposal
Language is an ever-evolving thing. Our fast-moving culture requires some terms fall out of favor while others arise to take their place. Just as the modern teenager likely has little idea what a phonograph or a talkie might be, there are things we need words for today that never would have occurred to us even just a few years ago -- like email or smartphone or Bieber.
The way we communicate changes things too. Twitter has given rise to the hashtag, while the brevity required for text messages has made popular abbreviations like LOL (living outside Lakeville) or BRB (buy reliable britches). I think. I don't actually text very much.
Text and email communication have also given us, for better or worse, the emoticon, a collection of punctuation marks assembled to resemble, for example, a smiling face. People will tell you these are necessary because it is difficult to convey tone in a written communication, but it seems to me people got along fine for centuries writing letters without drawing a frowny face to indicate sadness. Read our Founding Fathers' correspondence. There hardly an illustration to be found.
Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, was a big fan of the winky face.
Aside from getting appropriated to create crude faces, however, our punctuation has undergone much less change than the language as a whole. The periods and commas and semicolons we use today are largely the same ones used by our parents and our parents' parents.
The one possible exception is the exclamation point. It still looks much like it always, but it is used today much more liberally than it once was.
Hello! a friend might write to begin a message, even though you probably don't need to be that excited at the beginning of an email unless you're contacting your long-lost parent for the first time. How are you! They might continue, disregarding entirely what would be a perfectly sane place for a question mark.
Exclamation points are used for everything. They're thrown into otherwise ordinary sentences so often they have lost all real meaning.
If the Declaration of Independence had been written today, it might have read, "We hold these truths to be self evident!!!!!"
That excitement glut is the reason a woman named Ellen Susan has proposed a new form of punctuation. Called the el rey, it's kind of a combination between an exclamation point, a period and a stick figure looking at his reflection in a still pond. Unfortunately, there is no good way to reproduce it on this web page.
It looks like an exclamation point, but cinched up in the middle and with a second dot on top, and it's meant to indicate some middle ground from a boring period and an over-the-top exclamation point. It's meant for those times when "Thanks." is to blah but "Thanks!" is just a touch too manic.
It's perfect for a sentence like, "I'm so glad you weren't mauled by bears," as long as you don't like the person you're talking to all that much.
There are simpler solutions to these problems. We could accept that exclamation points are mostly unnecessary and get on with a reasonable life, for example. But given the trend in recent years that seems unlikely. I'd be willing to banish the exclamation point entirely, but it still proves useful from time to time.
There are some barriers to the adoption of the El Rey. It doesn't exist in any current font, for example, so it is impossible as of now to actually use it in any regular communication. There is at least limited support, though. Some early adopters have even suggested an interim solution, some combination of dots and horizontal lines that can serve as a stand-in. Something like this --.
It seems unlikely the el rey will ever actually catch on. People are excitable, and they like expressing that excitement with as many exclamation points as they can find.
Still, given the relative lack of change in the world of punctuation, it might be exciting to see something new come along. Just, you know, not too exciting.