By Ted Blankenship
I like punctuation as well as the next guy. The period is pretty handy and so is the comma if you don’t make it into an apostrophe and stick it on every word that ends with an “s.” The hyphen is okay for combining two words into one.
But I have a problem with the exclamation point. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be used, just that fewer of them ought to be used!!!! See what I mean?
I understand that writers who do this believe they are doing the right thing. A friend who was a Wichita Eagle columnist when I worked there loved exclamation points. He sprinkled handfuls of them in every column.
Here’s how he might have started a column: “I was walking downtown the other day and ran into an old friend! We hadn’t seen each other since 1960!!”
Old-time printers had different names for the mark. One is the “slam” or “slammer” and another is the “bang.” There is yet another one, but I can’t tell you what it is. Printers are known to be indelicate at times!
In those far off days when printers set type one letter at a time, one might ask another for an exclamation point. This got tedious and they turned to the cartoons for a shorter name. In the comics “bang!” was usually followed by an exclamation point and so was “slam!” As for “slammer,” that’s where writers who use too many exclamation points ought to go.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer who got along pretty well without them, said, “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” I agree with F. on the punctuation, but have to disagree on laughing at your own jokes. If you don’t laugh at them, they’re not likely to get laughed at.
I’m sure you just can’t wait to learn where the exclamation point came from. Some linguists (didn’t think I knew that word, did you?) think it comes from Latin. Latin is a dead language, so it’s pretty safe for the linguists to say that.
But it’s a sensible theory because as everyone knows, in Latin, the exclamation of joy was “IO,” and the “i” was written above the “o”. Why? Who knows? You’ll have to ask a Roman, and unfortunately most of them are as dead as their language.
Anyway, the “i” and the “o” were capitalized. Why? Because the Romans capitalized all of their letters—maybe because their shift keys were stuck.
But back to the slammer. The Romans, pretty crafty folks, realized that the “i” on top of an “o” looked kind of funny. They knew it meant “joy” so why not just make it into a punctuation mark? That would give writers lots of joy!!!!
It wasn’t until 1970 that the exclamation point had its own key on the typewriter. Before that, we had to type a period, then use the backspace to stick an apostrophe on top of it.
So, one way to look at it is that the Romans were more advanced than the rest of us because even though they didn’t have typewriters, they knew how to make an exclamation point.
Anyway, we’re fortunate to have the slam! or the bang! if you prefer, because otherwise, there would be no Hamilton!, Ohio.
Contact Ted Blankenship at