Dashes, Dots, and Librarians

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November 17, 2015 by libroshombre

The beginning of many aspects of the writing arts include librarians. Take Butehamen, the next-to-last chief scribe in ancient Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Scribes are librarians’ predecessors, and Butehamen invented the “bullet,” a dot “printed just before a line of type, such as an item in a list, in order to emphasize it.” “On the Dot: The Speck That Changed the World,” by Alexander and Nicholas Humez, describ

es how three thousand years ago Butehamen “left faint little red dots … next to each of the short prayers from the Book of the Dead written on the inside of the gesso mummy-cover that was to go inside his own innermost coffin.”

            My columns must be under a 700-word limit, so I frequently employ the ellipsis to shorten long quotes, like in the preceding sentence. Humez’ says that “ ‘ellipsis’ is the practice of leaving a word or words out of a sentence when they are not necessary for understanding it” and it’s indicated by three periods (i.e. “…”). By the way, the period was also invented by a librarian, Aristophanes of Byzantium, the head librarian at the Alexandrian Library in 200 BCE, who was the first to “put dots in the text to indicate short, medium, and long pauses.”

Refurbishing the 1885 Chandler & Price printing press in my garage is one of my retirement projects and pleasures. The pleasurable aspects were heightened recently by attending the Northwoods Book Arts Guild’s excellent introductory letterpress class. The big take-away was that setting type – picking out tiny pieces of molded lead and lining them up backwards so they’ll print forwards, and distinguishing between tiny inverted “p’s” and “q’s,” “i’s” and “l’s”– isn’t for the impatient or weak-willed. Fortunately, a lifetime in libraries provided some preparation. For example, I know my rectos from my versos and the difference between “em dashes,” “en dashes,” and hyphens. Your hyphen, the shortest of the three, “connects two things that are intimately related, usually words that function together as a single concept or work together as a joint modifier,” like “tie-in” or “toll-free,” according to the ChicagoManualOfStyle.org Q&A section.

The en dash is longer, about the space that the letter “N” would occupy, and “connects things that are related to each other by distance … which is why they properly appear in indexes when a range of pages is cited (e.g., 147-48).” En dashes also “connect a prefix to a proper open compound: for example, pre-World War II.” Meanwhile, the flexible em dash, the size of an “M,” can allow “an additional thought to be added within a sentence by sort of breaking away from that sentence – as I’ve done here.” They can also substitute for something missing, like an ellipsis, or bullet point for lists.

“Lorem ipsum,” another printer’s tool, has arisen several times recently in my Osher Lifelong Learning Institute classes. “Lorem ipsum” are the opening words in a Latin text drawn from Cicero, though intentionally mangled, to act as “filler text commonly used to demonstrate the graphic elements of a document of visual presentation,” Wikipedia tells us. “Replacing meaningful content with placeholder text allows viewers to focus on graphic aspects such as font, typography, and page layout without being distracted by the content.”

Lorem ipsum is often used for the same purpose by webpage designers. The two words come from the Latin “dolorem ipsum,” or “pain itself.” Cicero’s original passage began, “Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet consectetur adipisci velit,” which translates as, “Neither is there anyone who loves, pursues or desires pain itself because it is pain.” The corrupted form used by printers and web designers reads, “lorem ipsum dolor sit amet consectetur adipisci velit.” It was translated for the London Review of Books as “Rrow itself, let it be sorrow; let him pursue it, ishing for its acquisitiendum.”

Old Butehamen knew sorrow, for he wrote a poignant letter to the coffin of his dead wife, Ikhtay on a limestone shard: “O noble chest of the Osiris … Listen to me and say to her – since you are close to her – “How are you doing? How are you?”





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