It would take guts for irritable pedants to digest two dots

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WORD IN THE HAND: COLON

It would take guts for irritable pedants to digest two dots

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Journalist


Kurt Vonnegut is famous for saying things he never actually said (he did not, for example, send around a chain letter advocating the use of sunscreen) but in the book, A Man without a Country, he really did say this: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.”
I don’t believe Vonnegut meant to offend anyone; his intention in joining those two words was to create an impossible abstract concept; a paradox. See what I did there?
Pedants might flinch at the clumsiness of my semicolons, but the way I’ve used them is not technically incorrect. According to the law of the word nerd, a semicolon may legitimately be used to separate two unrelated sentences. So: “I hate semicolons; they are ugly” is grammatically acceptable, according to the law.
I say the law is an ass. Why on Earth would you give a job to a floppy, inefficient punctuation mark when you could employ a strong, honest full stop instead? I hate semicolons. They are ugly. That’s much better.
Even the most ardent hater of semicolons must admit, however, that these short-tailed newts of the grammar world are useful in separating items in a list. Usually commas will do, but if there are commas in the items themselves, then things get complicated. For example, “The following items were on the menu: Spam, egg and chips; spam, apples and salad; spam, rice, peas and kumquats ... ” You get the idea.
Let’s move on to the colon. Colons should be examined regularly to make sure they are functioning properly. There’s a sign in a complex I visit that could do with a colonoscopy. Painted on a loud yellow board, it proclaims “Slow children”. You’d think the fast ones would be more of a worry. If there were a colon after “slow” the sign might be read as a warning to motorists to drive carefully and watch out for short people running (or walking slowly) into the roads. But there isn’t a colon and so the less kind and more easily amused among us snigger every time we drive past the sign.
Writing on the Oxbridge Edit blog, grammarian Elly Naylor used farmyard signs to illustrate the use of the colon, giving “Cows: please close gate” and “Chickens: keep dogs on leads” as examples of the colon’s indispensability. She has a point, although I do think one could argue that “Cows please close gate” and “Chickens keep dogs on leads” could be clear and intentional instructions on an experimental free-range farm.
But where do colons come from, and who named a punctuation mark after a piece of the digestive tract in the first place? They certainly had guts, whoever they were. (Incidentally, the ancient Greeks believed that our emotions originated in the bowels, which is why “guts” is a word still associated with courage. We also still have “gut reaction” and “gut feeling”, both of which refer to intuition rather than a more rational stomach ache.)
As it happens, however, the colon made of two dots that annoy some people when combined with a bracket to make a smiley face (like this:) does not share any ancestors with the colon once thought to be the seat of bravery, now better known as the tube through which food passes on its way to becoming not-food.
The punctuation mark comes from the Latin “colon”, meaning a limb – as in the branch of a tree or the leg of a person. (Incidentally, the word “leg” stepped into English from Scandinavian in the 1300s. I wonder if that was because tall men and women had grown tired of being complimented on their lovely long colons?)
The other colon, the one made of flesh that sometimes gets irritable, comes from the Greek “kolon”, meaning large intestine.
The strangest thing about all this is that the small intestine did not automatically become the semikolon. Maybe it’s not that surprising; as everyone except the late Kurt Vonnegut has always known: language and grammar should never be expected to make sense.

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