We’ve never really managed to get a grip on signaling irony or sarcasm in written communication. Notoriously conveying tone of voice in an email, text message, or before that in a business memo, is almost impossible. If your readers can misunderstand you it seems almost certain that they will. Apparently we have formalized this problem as Poe’s law.

Obviously we’d benefit from some punctuation mark that said “I’m making a joke here”, “This is ironic”. One might have hoped the universe of emojis might have thrown up a contender, but these two attempts seem to fall short.




Apple’s version, the wry cat, doesn’t seem to convey “irony”: more like “I just eat something that disagreed with me”. I don’t really know why the upside-down face should be ironic rather than upsetting. Still I guess if Apple were to offer the cat every time you typed “irony” enough texters might adopt it, so that everyone might begin to think that that’s what the cat means. Thus far it doesn’t though. Perhaps those fluent in emoji-speak will be able to provide a more viable example. I suspect what we really need is software that detects when we are trying to be ironic and offers us the appropriate sign. But of course if people can’t detect irony, why would software do any better?

So the search continues. Here, courtesy of Shady Characters are a few of our attempts to fill this gap in our communications repertoire.

⸮ — the reversed question mark, called the percontation point, from the the six­teenth cen­tury

¡ — the in­ver­ted ex­clam­a­tion mark from the seventeenth century. Apparently this mark is in current use in this sense in some Ethiopic languages

‽ — the interrobang from 1962 by Martin K. Speck­ter. Remington even made a typewriter with an interrobang key. The name is a combination of its constituent elements, the interrogation mark, and the bang, which is a printer’s term for the exclamation mark.

~ — the tilde, pro­posed in the early 2000s

* — the asterisk, denoting sarcasm, a more re­cent entrant

   — reverse italic, invented by H. L. Mencken and pushed by Bernard Levin and Tom Driberg. Apparently Brooke Crutchley, former Printer to the University of Cambridge, once misattributed the original idea to Driberg in a letter to The Independent.


And then there is my per­sonal fa­vour­ite, the ironi­eteken as de­signed by Bas Jac­obs


Another recent applicant for the job, designed for indicating mild irony, is the jè (pronounced yeah) as here illustrated on a subtle T-shirt. Don’t know if the shirt can catch on though: The Beatles certainly weren’t dealing in irony. “And you know that can’t be bad” jumps into reverse with all that irony larded on. 

In an earlier post Mr Houston brings us this page from Hervé Bazin’s Plumons l’oiseau, di­ver­tisse­ment © Grasset & Fasquelle, 1967.

Lots of ideas, no progress. I guess it’s hard to get agreement on this sort of thing. Nobody thinks you’re serious.

Maybe the opening today of a Dallas bookstore called Interabang Books, will boost public acceptance of the need for an irony marker in our lives. Clearly we’re going to have to sort out the spelling once we adopt the concept.

Photo from Shelf Awareness