The asterisk: wise guy of the writing world*


*The curious history of a punctuation mark

Symbol: This typographical know-it-all is the literary equivalent of an elbow in the ribs. It's also good for masking profanity and sparking debate.

May 18, 2001|By Julia Keller | By Julia Keller,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

As punctuation marks go, it's hard to top the asterisk - because the asterisk is there to top everything else.

The asterisk always gets the last word. It adds a dubious, "Well, yes, but ..." The asterisk is the elbow in the ribs, the wink, the smirk, the disclaimer, the qualification. It's hard to love the asterisk, just as it's hard to love a smarty-pants showoff.

The asterisk looks like a tick on the page and, fittingly, often seems to suck the lifeblood out of a bold, forthright statement by sly insinuation: "Let's not be too hasty," the asterisk implies. "Perhaps we need to rethink this."

Asterisks are best known today in two realms: as appendages to sports statistics, most notably (albeit incorrectly) to the duel for most home runs in a baseball season that was fought (in the record books, at least) between Babe Ruth and Roger Maris; and as substitutes for letters in profane words in an effort not to offend readers with delicate sensibilities ("*******!" she replied to his leer.)

Though the asterisk seems as modern as night baseball, it's one of the most ancient and enduring of manuscript symbols, scholars say, stretching back much further in history than its typographical cousin, the footnote. (The word "asterisk" comes from "astrum," the Latin word for star; note the mark's starlike shape.)

"Asterisks go back to Hellenistic Alexandria," says Anthony Grafton, the Princeton University history professor who wrote "The Footnote: A Curious History" (1997). "In a classic text like Homer, you had a symbol to indicate there was a problem with it. You wouldn't change the text, but you'd indicate there was something wrong there, something more that needed to be said."

Asterisks were used in the Hebrew text of the Old Testament of the Bible, Grafton adds, and in the Middle Ages the asterisk was all the rage. "They were signs to carry the reader from the text to commentary about the text and then back again." he says.

The footnote, by contrast, didn't really get on its feet until the 18th century. Then as now, numbered footnotes were used by writers to add commentary, cite sources or settle old scores. As a reviewer wrote of Conor Cruise O'Brien's 1993 biography of Edmund Burke, "The footnotes are as sharp as flick-knives."

Footnotes bestow an air of scholarly authority, even pedantry, to a written work. Asterisks add an almost impish flavor. "It looks a little cute, as punctuation marks go," Grafton says.

Grafton's book does not mention asterisks, but the cover features one after the words "The Footnote." The matching asterisk at the bottom of the page reveals the subtitle: "A Curious History." In modern usage, the asterisk often is used as a kind of informal footnote, as a way of adding information in a more aesthetically pleasing way than the stuffy, no-nonsense footnote.

Another seemingly modern usage for asterisks - as replacements for letters in a word - can be traced back at least to 1387, says Bryan A. Garner, editor of "The Dictionary of American Usage" (1998). The link between an asterisk-laden ellipsis and profanity is now firmly established in the public mind. In a recent story about a foulmouthed candidate for mayor of London, a reporter said the candidate could become "the Asterisk Man, [his] every utterance disfigured by little stars."

But the most familiar role for asterisks these days is to cling to the professional sports statistic, the realm in which arguments and the splitting of hairs are part of the fun.

Asterisks long have adorned statistical records of sporting events. In the 1953 edition of "The World Almanac and Book of Facts," for instance, Jesse Owens' victory in the 100-meter run in the 1936 Olympic Games includes an asterisk next to the winning time of 10.3 seconds. At the bottom of the page, another asterisk reveals the qualification: "With wind."

In the same book, a chart of home run distances in major league ballparks lists the right, center and left field lengths. An asterisk is attached to Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, with this explanation: "Fence arches sharply outward beyond foul lines."

But in the popular mind, it was the supposed addition of a little star to Maris' name during his historic 1961 season that put the asterisk on the map. Maris hit 61 home runs that season, breaking Ruth's mark of 60. Ruth played a 154-game schedule; Maris, 162.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick was a friend of Ruth's and zealously protective of the slugger's image. Frick made the qualification July 17, 1961, as Maris appeared to be on a pace to close in on Ruth's record for most home runs.

The official records never contained an asterisk next to Maris' name, but the qualification remained until Sept. 3, 1991, when Commissioner Fay Vincent ruled that Maris owned the record. "I never felt it should have been put there to begin with," Roger Maris Jr. told the Associated Press after Vincent's decision.

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