Exclamation Point, Exclamation Mark - Potato Potato?
What’s in a name? Juliet asks, continuing that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. I’m quoting from memory, but that’s the general drift: the essence of the thing is not in the name; the name is random; it’s just an accidentally assigned sound signifying nothing (to quote Macbeth while we’re at it). Juliet is drawing on a whole centuries-long debate about the thing and its name, while she’s actually just trying to convince herself that although Romeo’s last name is Montague, it doesn’t follow that he by force is her enemy. It’s just a name, and not the substance. By any other name, he’d be her lover, too.
So, does it matter what we call anything? What we call a punctuation mark? Potato potato?
Well, as always, it does and it doesn’t.
In the US, ! is called exclamation point. In the UK, Ireland, and former British colonies like India and South Africa, ! is called exclamation mark.
Why is that so?
Well, we don’t know, but here are some hypotheses.
Early on, ! had different kinds of terms, including the Anglicised ‘wonderer’ (John Hart, 1550s), the ‘point of admiration’ (Randle Cotgrave in his English-French dictionary of 1611), a ‘note’ of exclamation (Samuel Johnson in his 1765 dictionary). I checked a few other dictionaries, and couldn’t track a specific trend, but I only found one “mark” of exclamation in a dictionary at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The same goes for “question mark”: writers usually refer to it as a ‘note’ of interrogation.
In the nineteenth century, however, the term “exclamation mark” came up in the UK, probably in tandem with “question mark”. In the US, though, the probably older “exclamation point” remained, although “question mark” was taken on.
This is puzzling! I haven’t been able to put my finger on the reasons yet, nor have been able to trace terms in a large-scale examination of dictionaries, grammar guides, literature, and so on.
Linguistics professor David Crystal has generously shared his thoughts on this with me in an email exchange: in the 1860s, the UK-US relations were extremely tense with regards to trade and (hence?) politics. So, perhaps British writers attempted to distance themselves from their former colony by changing punctuation terms. I find this not entirely convincing, and somewhat far-fetched. Is exclamation that important that we have to change its name? And why did the US actually take over “question mark” from British changes but not “exclamation mark”?
Alternatively, Crystal suggests, the change was driven by schools. For some reason or other, school masters and grammars, perhaps, picked a different name, and that choice gradually leaked out of schools into general circulation. The reasons are not clear to me. And again, what about that American question mark ?
My proposal was that there was an increased German influence on British culture as well as the study of language and literature at the time. Queen Victoria married German Prince Albert in 1840, so there may have been a greater interest in and presence of German in the UK. “Mark” reminds me of the German “Zeichen” (sign) from “Ausrufezeichen” (!). German scholarship on philology and literature was also cutting-edge at the time, so English-speaking scholars reading German books may just have passively adopted the new “Zeichen”/”mark”. David Crystal didn’t think this was likely.
The real story would take lots of research, I think, and, for now at least, is anybody’s guess.
On another note (or “mark” haha), there’s a perceived difference in how exclaim-happy Americans and British are: on her fun and informative blog on trans-Atlantic nuances Divided by a Common Language, American-born Sussex linguistics professor Lynne Murphy believes her compatriots exclaim more than her neighbours of her adopted home.
Based on subjective impression, it seems Americans exclaim more in writing than British. Professor Murphy tested this assumption by comparing Amazon reviews on the same book, as well as searching for ! on Google Books published in the US and the UK, and…the impression seems to be true!
I can certainly imagine that “proper” rigorous study would confirm this preliminary result.
I’m also curious about exclamation mark use in other languages, whether differing numbers of ! have anything to do with culture (even the question is a cliché, but…would Italians shout more in their writing than, say, Japanese?). How do translators deal with exclamations? I think there’re a lot of things we’d need to take into account, such as different current conventions in different languages changing over time, education levels, attitudes towards language, standardisation practices.
If you ask me, exclaim away! Permission to exclaim granted, and you can quote me on that. That!