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Sunday, 25 May 2008 02:00

Letter to the Editor

By  Elan Gamaker
Dear Sir/Madam

I should like strenuously to object to the subject matter ("/") of your current issue.

It must first be mentioned, however, that it has never been the stated policy of my organisation to attempt to block or even hope to demur against publications who from time to time employ the use of certain punctuation marks above others. At the recent joint sitting of our Chamber of Deputies, however, the decision to take action against your publication was carried at 43 votes to six.

A large part of the reason for this overwhelming majority was not just the belief that your particular emphasis on the forward slash was ill timed. We also feel that the encouragement to connote meaning from it represents a callous act whose insensitivity to the history of the backslash represents an ignorance that borders at best on contempt and at worst on incitement.

If I am to afford your editors the benefit of the doubt and assume your decision was a naive error in judgement, allow me at the very least to fill you in on the history of our punctuation mark and the background to our movement.

The first use of the slash was believed to be in 1440, during the printing of Luther's Ninety-Five Theses. Early drafts had printers placing pieces of lead between words (hence the modern use, in desktop publishing, of the term 'leading'). One such printer, the alcoholic philatelist Gunter Hyphen, mistakenly placed such pieces of lead at various angles. This lead to certain words and phrases being misunderstood, such as "amen" instead of "amen", and the more tragic misunderstanding of John 3:16, where readers were not sure whether or not they should perish.1

While the mark was thus considered offensive, the result was a haphazard printing of vertical lines at various angles whose popularity in fact grew. Whence the popularity for the forward slash – and the commensurate hatred for its cousin – developed, it is hard to say. Many ascribed it to a superstition that the backslash was backward leaning, and with the onset of the Reformation it came to symbolise (in common prejudice) regression, paganism and, worse, insurance salesmen.

Violence in this dispute had been simmering for decades, and the Printing Riots of 1512 resulted. While these riots, during which more than 3000 hashes lost their lines, were regrettable, they were thankfully short-lived. But they left a bitter taste in the mouths of even the least recalcitrant printers. These men, mostly of Nordic stock, became determined to worsen an already inflammatory situation. On the Night of the Total Ellipsis, in September 1529, the front door of the houses of rioters in almost every European village was marked with an "at" sign (the punctuation's circular design today is a direct descendant of the painting style employed at the time).

These acts led directly to the largely attritive Vertical Line War of 1555, during which the armies of Cedilla and Ampersand suffered debilitating losses, most notably at the maritime Battle of Exclamation Point in 1557. The Parenthesis Accord of 1564 settled the conflict temporarily, but the subsequent rise to power in 1607 of Loudewyckes the Bracket led to renewed hostilities.

When the Royal houses of Umlaut and Bracket were united through marriage in 1666, many believed this would lead to stability. The opposite proved to be true, as ethnic cleansing of backslashes began. Backslashes were shepherded to forced punctuation camps in which they suffered greatly. Those who were considered to have acute accents were usually spared the worst of the punishment, but those with grave accents were subjected to appalling living conditions and gruelling shifts (and also, on occasion, to control-shifts).

Backslash independence rhetoric was ruthlessly suppressed, and intermarriage with other punctuation marks made illegal. Backslashes were made to undergo humiliating identification tests in public (the existence of a circumflex was considered enough proof), and either forced to wear signs to make them stand out or ordered to walk at an unnatural angle; businesses were shut down.

It was only during the First World War, some 250 years later, that backslash freedom was placed on the table again. Many fled Europe for America, including the noted comedian Question Marx. But while those who could afford to flee enjoyed unprecedented rights in the New World, those who stayed behind found themselves being labelled as scapegoats for the continent's financial woes. They suffered privation, exclusion, abuse and discrimination. Indeed, many were blamed by the West for the Russian Revolution itself, and came to be known as "comma bastards".

While for the latter half of the 20th century backslashes enjoyed a relative respite in oppression, the "final dissolution" of the early 1970s banned the use of backslashes in mathematical equations, a disastrous decision given the new predominance of the information technology sector. Indeed, the decision all but eradicated the backslash altogether.

Numbers began to grow in the mid-1980s, largely thanks to left-handed people no longer being forced to write with their right hands, but it was the onset of the Internet that led to the first "tilde"2 in 1998. This was a direct result of the decision by the W3 Consortium to use forward slashes for computer directories and web addresses. The use of two in the HTML epithet http:// was seen as adding insult to industry.

My organisation rose from the ashes of the first suppressed tilde in 2001, during a summit held in the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Twelve others and I today make up the Committee of Founding Members, with our non-executive Chairman an apostrophe and our Freedom Charter named for Dot Jones, who died tragically in 2002 from semi-colon cancer.

I do hope this letter has helped to highlight to your editorial staff and (should you decide to publish it) your readers the ongoing struggle of the backslash, and thereto the ongoing significance of our movement.

And, naturally, I look forward to seeing a "backslash" issue in the future.

Kind regards
Elan Gamaker
Underscore Secretary

Serving the interest of backslashes for longer than you think.

1 John 3:16 was misprinted thus: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should/not perish, but have eternal life."
2 Tilde translates loosely as "armed uprising".

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