Facebook Twitter



Question: Can you explain the origin of the question mark? I haven't had much luck trying to find anything on my own.

- J.M., Philadelphia

Answer: The question mark was unknown in the ancient world and in the early Middle Ages. It had made its appearance by the 11th century, however, and by the 12th it was well-established under its Latin name "punctus interrogativus." The early question mark looked much like ours, but it slanted to the right.

A number of theories have been proposed to explain its beginnings, most of them more colorful than likely. One theory holds that the question mark comes from an inverted semicolon. Another suggests that the question mark is formed from the first and last letters of Latin "quaestio," meaning "question," with one of the letters placed above the other as an abbreviation. An alternative version of this theory is that the question mark is a small "q" placed over a period as an abbreviation for the Latin "quaerere," meaning "to ask."

The most likely view, however, is that the question mark developed out of a system of musical notation used for Gregorian chant. As adopted for use in writing, the mark signaled to the reader not only that there was a pause between sentences but also that a special tone of voice - the intonation of a question - was needed.

Question: I recently heard a co-worker referred to as "the department's whipping boy," and although I've heard the phrase before it really struck me as odd this time. Where does the phrase "whipping boy" come from?

- N.D., New Haven, Conn.

Answer: As used today, "whipping boy" simply means "scapegoat" or "one who bears the blame for others." Originally, however, "whipping boy" was a sort of job title.

In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the king was considered nearly sacred: his power to rule (the "divine right of kings") was believed to be granted by God, and consequently his person was inviolate. The sacrosanct quality of royalty was also extended to the king's offspring, most notably to the prince who was heir to the throne.

Boys will be boys, however, and at times the prince would commit an offense for which he should be punished. At a period in history when such punishment usually consisted of inflicting some sort of physical pain, the punisher, who could not touch the prince, was left with quite a dilemma.

Enter the "whipping boy," a boy raised and educated with the prince and designated to take whatever punishments the prince deserved. A Barnaby Fitzpatrick, who took the lash for Henry VIII's son, the future Edward VI, is said to have been the first "whipping boy" in English history during the 16th century. But the actual phrase "whipping boy" was not recorded until 1647, and by then it had developed the figurative meaning that it has today.