Words & Stuff

ww: Punctuated Equilibrium

(7 June 1998)

Computer folks hate to waste time or syllables. I've heard that commands in the UNIX operating system are so short and cryptic because one of the creators of UNIX hated to type. In the spirit of brevity, short whimsical names have been assigned to many items of punctuation: for instance, rather than saying "exclamation point," one can simply say "bang," which besides saving four syllables is rather more onomatopoetic. Similarly, "splat" is a bit more descriptive than "asterisk." ("Octothorp" is longer than "pound sign" or "hash," but I much prefer it anyway, just 'cause it's a cool word.)

In college, I occasionally found it necessary to read LISP programs aloud. LISP is a programming language which uses a large number of parentheses, and saying "open parenthesis" (or even "open paren") approximately two hundred times a page was a daunting prospect. My roommate therefore suggested abbreviating the open-parenthesis as "ope" and the close-parenthesis as "clo." Unfortunately, once past the parenthesis hurdle we found that much of LISP is more or less unpronounceable, so we gave up.

Had we been more dedicated, we might have achieved the brilliance of Fred Bremmer and Steve Kroese of Calvin College & Seminary of Grand Rapids, MI. The intrepid pair wrote a poem that appeared a while back (presumably around the beginning of 1997) in INFOCUS magazine which consisted almost entirely of punctuation. There had apparently been some debate among INFOCUS readers over the correct pronunciation of the angle-bracket characters, < and >; despite the claims of some readers that these items were "norkies," the magazine had determined that the correct term is "waka."

Hence, the following poem:

< > ! * ' ' #
^ " ` $ $ -
! * = @ $ _
% * < > ~ # 4
& [ ] . . /
| { , , SYSTEM HALTED

Which, read aloud, becomes:

Waka waka bang splat tick tick hash,
Caret quote back-tick dollar dollar dash,
Bang splat equal at dollar under-score,
Percent splat waka waka tilde number four,
Ampersand bracket bracket dot dot slash,
Vertical-bar curly-bracket comma comma CRASH.

That poem reminds me of a much older item by Mykle Hansen, which starts out with a line that rhymes and scans with the beginning of the waka waka poem:


;;,,-
semicolon semicolon comma comma dash
my paper here is perfect but my punctuation rash

Mykle's poem ends like this:

colon colon period (I look at what I wrote)
but what the hell (parenthesis) it couldn't hurt (unquote)"
indentation (paragraph), blotted out mistake
after all, all poetry is just what poets make.


Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>