Comma Up to My Place

peanuts cartoon on commasIf you happen to be the kind of person, hopeless, that is, desperately deranged, who would go looking for the history of a punctuation mark, you can find that on Wikipedia. But rest your fingers, rest your heart. You don’t need to waste time thinking about actual facts when I can give you the secret history of the comma. What makes this secret is that I never wrote it down before. Or thought of it. That’s how secret it is.

As everyone knows, most commas these days come from South Korea, and with modern Korean production processes, commas have become very cheap. I buy large boxes of commas at Target, and the kind I buy come with free semicolons. As a writer, I have a use for semicolons, but if you happen to run across them, you can just throw semicolons in the trash. You don’t need those. If you need a few commas in a hurry, I’ve also seen them in packages of a dozen, for sale in service stations, usually near the beef jerky.

The comma was invented by a medieval monk in Portugal, who was copying manuscripts that he found dull (legend says they were love poems from one of the first popes), and the monk grew sleepy as he was writing. He continued to work in a drowsy state, but when he tried to make periods, his pen slipped a bit on the page. At first the other monks thought these marks were strangely written periods. They liked the way they looked, however, so that every time they came to one, they would pause to look at it. This is how the comma came to represent a pause in the sentence.

Commas became especially popular in Europe in the court of the French king Louis XIV, where commas were worn on the clothing of the courtiers, often decorated with jewels, so that a combination of a comma with an added pearl inadvertently invented the semicolon. The comma was so popular at this time that many illiterate people wanted to learn how to write, just to have words they could put on either side of the beloved comma.

One of the interesting offshoots of the comma in the 19th century was that it gave rise to a visual metaphor that meant “Shut up. Just shut up right now.” That message was conveyed by holding one finger out in front, then curving it downwards as if drawing a comma. The symbolic intent was “I’m inserting a pause here, and I’ll tell you when to continue, which will be never.” A number of duels were fought over that downward-curving finger, and quite a few writers lost their lives this way, as they were quick to insert an air comma, but less quick with pistols afterward.

In more recent history, back in 1986 a cargo ship full of commas sank in the Indian Ocean, and for the next year sentences all over the world were faster to read, though at the same time many of them were less clear for lack of punctuation. Toward the end of the 20th century, commas began to lose their popularity in the west just as they were gaining in popularity in Asia, particularly in Japan and Thailand. In some Buddhist sects, the curve of the comma came to be seen as implying part of a circle, so that every comma was thought to remind us that at any given moment, we are only part of the way through the circle of life.

And of course we all know about the recent upsurge in the popularity of commas because of pop bands who have named themselves after the comma: Commas and Whiskey, Red Comma Revolution, The Night Commas, and others.

And while I’m thinking of it,

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