The question mark is my favorite punctuation mark.
Days before my seventh birthday, I went to Santa Monica Hospital to have my tonsils out. Parts of the experience stand out clearly in memory. For instance, I remember being carried into the operating room by the doctor. I remember a mask being placed over my face. I remember being told to count backwards. And I remember a dream.
I’ve had general anesthetic a few times since, but don’t ever remember any dreams. This one time, though, I did.
I dreamed of question marks, dancing around me, and I dreamed of them jumping off a cliff. It wasn’t a nightmare exactly, but I found it disturbing. I have continued to find question marks menacing, somehow. What is it they want from me, exactly, and do they expect me to have answers?
Of course, I’m joking, a little bit. I experience no uneasiness at all at a question mark at the end of a sentence. Do you know where I left my keys? is not disturbing. Even Is there any meaning to life? ignites no particular emotion. It’s when the question mark stands out there all on its own that I get a bit twitchy.
There’s something about the wiggly insistence of the mark itself. It conjures uncertainty and instability. It suggests that there’s no end to possible questions, that no answer will ever be enough.
The recent flurry of Dr. Who programming reminded me of my uneasy relationship with question marks, where they appear on vests and shirt collars in the various incarnations of the Doctor. I also recall the music group from the sixties, ? and the Mysterians, how I never liked that name. I do not even like the way it alphabetizes in my iTunes library.
My research into the origins of the question mark was disappointing. I expected (hoped) I might find it had some occult origin, but in fact, its beginnings–while subject to debate–are mundane and practical. I was astonished to learn that, while used around the world in non-western languages such as Japanese and Chinese, some languages use other symbols to indicate an interrogative. Armenian uses something that looks like a backwards, flattened, cursive “a.” Arabic uses a question mark, but it’s turned around to accommodate right-to-left text. Three vertical dots indicate the interrogative in Ethiopic. Coptic uses a small square. None of these do it for me; they are thoroughly unsatisfying interrogatives.
This “backwards” version of the question mark has another use I was previously unaware of, that of a percontation mark, for a rhetorical question, or to denote irony or sarcasm. I would have thought the sarcasm and irony uses would be recent innovations, but no, they date from the 19th century, according to my online research.
I suppose there are other symbols that spur feelings, for instance, $, or perhaps @, if you’re into Twitter or email addresses. For me, it’s the question mark, all the way. Periods put me to sleep. Semicolons make me feel smug. Exclamation marks annoy. Only question marks make me want to know what’s up.