Obscure Punctuation: #4

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Guillemets

Guillemets are the primary form of quotation marks in non-English languages. They look like the fast forward >> and rewind << signs on DVD players and VCRs. I love guillemets and I remember the bewilderment I felt the the first time I saw a set of them on the page of a German novel in a local junk store in Leimen, Germany, when I was eleven years old.

After that I was puzzled as to why a language would chose to use something so distracting as a form of punctuation, but never seemed to find my answer. In my youth I primarily used computers for video games and word processing (DOS ftw!), so I wasn’t an aggressive enough internet surfer to find the answer to my question. In fact I only recently got my answer.

I found that guillemets actually originated as a creation from a French printer named Guillaume Le Be. Guillemet is the diminutive form of Guillaume, which is French for William, making the direct translation for guillemet: little William. This seems a tad too cutesy for my taste, being that I am a fan of functional nomenclature and etymology rather than naming things after the maker. But guillemet is still fun to say.

One thing I learned was that guillemets are not always used in a fashion where they point outwards, they can also point inwards, (>>like this<< instead of <<this way>>), which is actually how I first encountered them in German. When I researched why that might have been done, I found a comical rationale: a German print maker reversed them simply out of his distaste for the French and their conventions.

— Deirdre McCormick, Poetry Editor

Editor’s Note: Deirdre McCormick is a third year Biology Major with a minor in Creative Writing.  She is deeply passionate for both topics and that is evident in much of her writing endeavors.  She was also recently published in Lewis University’s own Windows magazine.

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