Q: You wrote recently about the increasing use of exclamation points. When did this overused punctuation mark first appear and who was responsible for it?
A: The exclamation point or exclamation mark first appeared in Medieval Latin in the 14th century, but its parentage is somewhat uncertain.
It was originally called a puncto exclamativus (exclamation point) or puncto admirativus (admiration point), according to the British paleographer Malcolm B. Parkes.
In Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (1993), Parkes notes that the Italian poet Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia claimed in 1360 to have invented the exclamation point:
“ego vero videns quod exclamativa vel admirativa clausula aliter soleat quam continuus vel interrogativus sermo enunciari, consuevi tales clausulas in fine notare per punctum planum et coma eidem puncto lateraliter superpositum.”
(“Indeed, seeing that the exclamatory or admirative clausula was otherwise accustomed to be enunciated in the same way as continuing or interrogative discourse, I acquired the habit of pointing the end of such clausulae by means of a clear punctus, and a coma placed to the side above that same punctus.”)
The translation is by Parkes, who found the citation in “Di un Ars Punctandi Erroneamente Attribuita a Francesco Petrarca” (“On a Punctuation Erroneously Attributed to Petrarch”), a 1909 paper by Franceso Novati for the Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere.
The passage cited by Novati is from “De Ratione Punctandi Secundum Magistrum Iacopum Alpoleium de Urbesalia in Forma Epistole ad Soctorem Quendam Salutatum” (“On the Method of Punctuation According to the Teacher James Alpoleius de Urbasalia in the Form of an Epistle to a Certain Teacher Salutatum”).
The first actual example of an exclamation point in Pause and Effect is from De Nobilitate Legum et Medicinae (“On the Nobility of Laws and Medicine”), a 1399 treatise by that “certain teacher” mentioned above, Coluccio Salutati, a Florentine scholar and statesman. The slanting exclamation point can be seen here, just after the word precor near the end of the second line:
This is the relevant passage in clearer Latin, with our English translation. It begins with the last three words of the first line:
“Ego temet et alios medicos obteso et rogo. repondete michi precor!” (“I am afraid and entreat you and other doctors, answer me, I pray!”).
As for the English terminology, the Oxford English Dictionary says the “punctuation mark (!) indicating an exclamation” was originally referred to as a “note of exclamation” or “note of admiration.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation uses both: “A note of Exclamation or Admiration, thus noted!” (from The Mysterie of Rhetorique Unvail’d, 1656, by the Anglican clergyman John Smith).
As far as we can tell, the term “exclamation point” first appeared in the early 18th century in a work by a British grammarian, classicist, and mathematician:
“! Exclamation-point is us’d in admiring, applauding, bewailing, &c.” (English Grammar Reformd Into a Small Compass and Easy Method for the Readier Learning and Better Understanding, 1737, by Solomon Lowe).
The term “exclamation mark” appeared a century later. The earliest example we’ve seen is from A Third Book for Reading and Spelling With Simple Rules and Instructions for Avoiding Common Errors (1837), by the American educator Samuel Worcester:
“How long do you stop at a comma? – at a semicolon? – at a colon? – at a period? – at an interrogation mark? – at an exclamation mark?”
The OED’s first example for “exclamation mark” is from A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by the English lexicographer and grammarian Henry W. Fowler:
“Excessive use of exclamation marks is, like that of italics, one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer.”
In other words, the overuse of exclamation points that you mention in your question and that we discuss in our 2023 post is apparently nothing new.