The 500-year-long battle to make written irony easier to understand

One of our most well-known experts on irony lived a life that was a mess of ironies itself: he was a married, gay High Anglican who lunched with occultists; a leftist politician who revelled in frivolous society gossip; a patriot who spied for both MI5 an

Our collective sense of irony, it seems, has never been in better health. We say, “How ironic!” as a politician’s hypocrisy is exposed; we laugh knowingly as Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter egos eviscerate their prey with perfect Socratic irony; we feel keenly the dramatic irony as Romeo takes his own life, thinking Juliet has killed herself. Irony, in all its forms, pervades our lives.

And yet, as soon as we move from being appreciative connoisseurs to active purveyors of irony, we run into difficulty. Verbal irony – the ostensibly simple act of stating something that is not meant – is a fragile thing, a contract between ironist and audience that is easily broken. Without mutual understanding, a theoretically ironic statement just does not work: a veiled compliment is mistaken for the insult behind which it is hidden, while an ironic expression of praise loses its critical sting. Sometimes, most simply, a meaningful statement becomes nonsensical.

Spoken irony, for the most part, avoids such pitfalls by virtue of tone of voice and the body language with which we accompany it. By cocking an eyebrow, by feigning enthusiasm or boredom, we give an attentive listener the clues they need to extract our true meaning. The problems most often arise not when we utter an ironic statement but when we try to write it down.

Yet written language is not without its own body language of sorts in the form of punctuation, and to approximate a specific tone of voice we might employ italic or bold text. Despite this, writers persist in looking for alternative ways to signal irony. For evidence of this we need look no further than the prevalence of the “smileys” with which we decorate jokes sent over SMS, instant messaging and email. Plainly, we do not trust conventional marks alone to convey our meaning. Even a crude :-) or ;-) is preferable to having an ironic comment misunderstood by its reader.

The difficulty of signalling textual irony was first documented in the 16th century, when in 1509 the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus bemoaned the lack of a mark with which ironic statements could be punctuated. Erasmus declined to address the problem himself, and it was not until 1668, in Restoration England, that the first true irony mark was minted. It came from the versatile mind of the Reverend John Wilkins, a clergyman, natural philosopher and minor da Vinci of his day.

Living through the English civil war and the restoration of the monarchy that followed it, Wilkins no doubt had a firm grasp of the concept of irony. Having once served as chaplain to the nephew of King Charles I, he married a sister of the Royalists’ bête noire, Oliver Cromwell, who installed him as head of Trinity College, Cambridge; he lost the post on the Restoration but contrived to become the first secretary of the newly established Royal Society. Here was a man comfortable with the ironies of his time.

Wilkins was tirelessly inquisitive. He posited the possibility of extraterrestrial life on the moon (and designed a flying machine to get there); he speculated on the construction of submarine “arks”; he wrote the first book on cryptography in English; and he fabricated transparent beehives that allowed honey to be extracted without killing the bees inside.

His creation of the irony mark, though, came by way of a project that he intended to be his crowning glory. His “Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language” described an artificial language capable of “the distinct expression of all things and notions that fall under discourse”. Just as we sometimes find written language inadequate to express of irony, so Wilkins found it inadequate for everything else besides, and his “real character” was designed to encompass all things and ideas the human mind could conceive of. His irony mark was little more than a footnote to this epic work, a suggestion that ironic statements might be punctuated with an inverted exclamation mark (¡). His was not only the first irony mark; it was also the first to fail.

It took more than a century after Wilkins’s bold but doomed endeavour for the next putative irony mark to appear. And, for now at least, it had migrated across the Channel: if England was not ready to note irony, the Continent most certainly was.

The first of Europe’s steady procession of irony marks appeared in an 1842 issue of a Belgian newspaper named Le Courrier Belge. In an article bemoaning the ceaseless political and martial wrangling of Europe’s “long 19th century”, Jean-Baptiste-Ambroise- Marcellin Jobard, the paper’s proprietor, opened a paragraph with a small mark shaped like a Christmas tree. The foot of his article bore an explanatory note: “Ceci un point d’ironie.” (Had he lived a century later, Jobard might have appropriated Magritte’s slogan and made it: “Ceci n’est pas un point d’ironie”.) In a book published the following year, Jobard elaborated on his experiment, explaining that a new family of marks could be created by rotating his Christmas tree to signal irritation, indignation or hesitation.

Jobard, like John Wilkins, was a technologist and inventor: he championed lithography, a novel method of printing; he studied the propagation of sound through hollow pipes; he agitated for the introduction of railways to Belgium; and he lit his home with gas lamps that he had designed.

However, his irony mark was not used beyond his own works. Writing only a decade after Jobard had publicised his creation, Jean-Jacques Rousseau echoed Erasmus by lamenting the apparent lack of punctuation for ironic statements.

The next irony mark was born in fin de siècle France, courtesy of the poet Alcanter de Brahm. In his 1899 essay L’Ostensoir des ironies (“the monstrance of ironies”), de Brahm put forward an irony mark shaped like a stylised, reversed question mark () and spoke of it “taking the form of a whip” to indicate the verbal lashing that irony could inflict. Perhaps more so than his predecessors, de Brahm was aware of the delicate balance to be struck when committing verbal irony to paper – the phrase point d’ironie, he noted, was a pun that also meant “no irony”. As a later scholar remarked of de Brahm’s symbol, can a reader ever be sure that an irony mark is not being used ironically in its own right?

This was of no concern to Hervé Bazin, an acclaimed French novelist and creator of the third and final point d’ironie to appear in print. In 1966 Bazin wrote a light-hearted book on words and language, Plumons l’oiseau, or “Let’s pluck the bird”. Presented as the work of a fictitious professor of linguistics, Plumons l’oiseau was chiefly a plea for spelling reform, though Bazin also devoted a chapter to a set of six proposed “intonation points”. Joining symbols expressing love, conviction, authority, acclamation and doubt was his own point d’ironie, constructed from an exclamation mark crossed by a stroke akin to a single horizontal parenthesis. Bazin explained his mark as follows:

This is an arrangement of the Greek letter ψ. This letter (psi) is an arrow in the bow, corresponding to ps: that is to say, the sound of that same arrow in the air. What could be better to denote irony?

Ultimately, Bazin’s picturesque symbol was no more successful than those of Jobard and de Brahm before it, and it remains the final attempt by a francophone writer to create an irony mark. It was also the last to precede the internet, the arrival of which fostered a new burst of short-lived irony marks. In comparison to the decades that elapsed between those of Jobard, de Brahm and Bazin, digital irony marks (or rather, sarcasm marks, as the internet favours irony’s derisive cousin) seem to crop up every other year. Yet none of these has quite the ironic gravity of their printed predecessors. At the risk of being accused of typographic snobbery, I would contend that the points d’ironie of Jobard, de Brahm and Bazin, cut in steel and cast in lead, have precisely one credible successor – one that, once again, is a European invention.

In 2007, the theme for the Boekenbal, the gala opening of the Dutch national book festival, was “In Praise of Folly – Jest, Irony and Satire” and a new mark of punctuation commissioned for the occasion was launched at the event.

Though conceived primarily as a publicity stunt, the “ironieteken” designed by Bas Jacobs of the European type foundry Underware was a considered addition to the pantheon of existing irony marks. Jacobs conceived his graceful, zigzag ironic exclamation mark (below) to blend in with existing punctuation marks and to be easy to write by hand, and he succeeded admirably on both counts.

Shock note: the mark proposed by Underware

Unfortunately, as one wag pointed out, two ironieteken placed next to each other (to punctuate an especially ironic exclamation, perhaps) bear not a little resemblance to the insignia of the Nazi SS (ϟϟ). Whether because of this or otherwise, the ironieteken remains more a curiosity than a viable punctuation mark.

If irony refuses to be punctuated, perhaps the solution is to mimic an ironic tone of voice. After all, we can already emphasise text in a number of ways, so why not extend our typographic palette to encompass the ironic register? Writing for the Times in February 1982, the columnist Bernard Levin recalled a proposal to do just that: “Much of my time is spent trying to dispel the belief that my words mean the exact opposite of what they say, such an assurance being necessary in view of the apparently unshakeable determination among many readers to misunderstand them.”

“As for trying to be funny – well, long ago Tom Driberg [the Labour MP] proposed that typographers should design a face that would slope in the opposite direction from italics, and be called ‘ironics’.” With jokes set in this typeface, Levin said, no one would have any excuse for failing to see them.

Fittingly, Driberg’s life was a mess of ironies: he was a married, gay High Anglican who lunched with occultists; a leftist politician who revelled in frivolous society gossip; a patriot who spied for both MI5 and the KGB. It seems entirely apt for him to have proposed the creation of a typeface to invest text with a double meaning.

Unfortunately, today’s word-processing software remains steadfastly unable to invest text with Driberg’s ironic tilt, and a sentence terminating in a “¡”, “” or ironieteken is more likely to be mistaken for a typographical error than seen as an ironic statement.

Getting irony across in writing remains as simple and as complicated as it ever was. Just say it like you mean it.

Keith Houston is the author of “Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and Other Typographical Curiosities” (Particular Books, £16.99)

Font of wisdom: written language already contains a range of special characters to aid comprehension. Could a symbol denoting irony ever join them? Image: Dan Murrell

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.