Punctuation series: The asterisk

Stuart de Rozario Knowledge share
29 Mar’17

We’ve all heard the answering machine say, ‘Please use the star key on your telephone keypad’, jotted down a cross with an extra line through the middle to emphasize importance on a list or even seen it used as an expletive for a swear word. Affectionately known as the sweet and innocent ‘little star’, its correct typographical term ‘asterisk’ (pronounced *aste-risk) is a popular glyph amongst type designers and typographers due to its decorative floral nature. 

The life of the asterisk began around 300 B.C. at a library in Alexandria Egypt, where scholars implemented the use of small dashes, crosses and marks (punctuation) to indicate comments or corrections in text of literature, mathematics and astronomy. The asterisk derives its name from the Ancient Greek ‘asteriskos’ meaning ‘little star’ or the late Latin term ‘asterisks’. The symbol was developed by a grammarian / librarian named Aristarchus of Samothrace from Ancient Greece, he devised a new star shape when using his marking system when translating Homer’s poetry.

There are claims that the origin of the asterisk can be traced back as far as 5,000 B.C. by the Sumerians who used a starlike shape called dingir to communicate sky, heaven or deity. The similarities of the asterisk and dingir are only visual and have no other contextual reference. Arguably making the asterisk the oldest punctuation sign of them all.

The multifaceted asterisk’s primary function is to be used to mark keywords in text as a footnote or annotation. When used as a footnote the asterisk is the first of six punctuation symbols used in sequence alongside the dagger (†), the double dagger (‡), followed by the section (§), the paragraph mark (¶) and finally the double bar (||). The asterisk indicates a persons birth e.g. William Shakespeare (*1564) while the Dagger resembling a cross denotes the year of death e.g. Charles Dickens (†1870). 

The asterisk (located on the number 8 key) can be easily accessed on both Mac and PC by holding down the Shift key and typing the figure 8 (some keyboards have a numeric keypad and the asterisk can be located in the top right corner). The numeric keypad asterisk tends to be used as a multiplication sign e.g 5 * 3 = 15. 

In computer programming terms the asterisk is often referred to as a wildcard character to indicate pointers, repetition or multiplication. There are many programming languages that use the asterisk, this is a small snippet of code from CSS indicating selecting all elements:

* { 

    background-color: grey;

}

The basis of the design has not changed much over the centuries from Aristarchus of Samothrace’s initial marking. The original form of the asterisk (※) included four dots placed in the north, south, east and west positions with a diagonal cross intersecting from top left to bottom right and top right to bottom left. The cross and four dots version of the asterisk gradually rotated 90º over time, slowly these dots and lines merged into a star shape with eight points. The eight pointed version is still used in hand writing but type designers usually reduce the number of points from eight to five or six. Some say six for serif fonts and five for sans, and according to Robert Bringhurst in The elements of typographic style it depends on the style of the font, ‘…a twentieth-century neohumanist face like Palatino requires an asterisk with more calligraphic character – sharper, slightly asymmetrical lobes, more likely five than six in number, showing the trace of the broadnib pen’. In reality we often go for 5 points because of space constraints, it can be very hard to fit in 6 points when designing the heavier weights of a typeface regardless of its style.

*Fun fact: Three asterisks in a row is called a dinkus and indicates a section break in text or can be used to censor an expletive ‘F***’. A group of three asterisks in a triangular formation ⁂ is referred to as an asterism (like a pattern of stars lighting up the night sky). Used to divide subchapters or long periods of text (unavailable as a Mac keystroke although it can be accessed through the operating system character palate. The PC keystroke is Alt + 8258).

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