When the late purple paisley musician Prince restyled himself as a squiggle (or “Symbol”), nobody knew quite how to reference him or his work, so he was given the monicker “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”. The new “Love Symbol” logo that represented his “name” was not a regular symbolic character, and after first trying to get everyone to download a special font file that had that character in it, eventually he relented and rebranded back to Prince again.
Working with special symbol characters was covered back in ToW #362; there are lots of less esoteric characters that are in regular use: but have you ever stopped to think how they came to be?
The Ampersand (&) has been around for 2,000 years, starting as a single character to join the letters e and t, ie the Latin for “and”. It’s a surprisingly common symbol, often used in company names and logos … but not universally loved by writers, or the odd legal secretary in days of dictation typing (the lawyer doing the dictation might record the company name as “Smith & co” since that’s the legal name, but more than one typist has produced the letter addressed to “Smith Ampersand co”…)
What about the @ symbol? Popularised by accountants and keepers of ledgers, the “Commercial At” (short for “at the rate of” – eg. meaning 10 units at the price of 1 shilling – 10@1s), was part of the relatively limited character set of a standard typewriter for over 100 years. It’s arguably called the Asperand though has many other names; contemporary usage has meant the symbol is either the key conjunction in an email address or the start of a digital invocation in the way of a mention.
The Asperand has nearly as many alternative names as the Octothorpe, though modern users wouldn’t necessarily think about the history of the symbol, even though it has variously been used to denote “number”, to be “pound” on your telephone keypad, or the “hash” symbol (a corruption of hatch, as in the hatching pattern) and hence, hashtag.
The computer keyboard will probably be with us for many years to come – it’s just such an efficient way (once you get used to it) of text entry, that it’s hard to imagine it’ll be replaced entirely with gestures or by speech.
There are some pretty obscure keys on the standard PC keyboard though – many of which date to the very earliest implementations of the IBM PC. What does Scroll Lock do, for example, other than annoy Excel users who think they’re moving the cursor around inside the sheet, only to find the whole thing is scrolling up and down?
The Pause key (often doubled up with Break, which dates back to the days of the telegraph) has one interesting modern side effect – press WindowsKey + Pause, and your machine will jump straight to the “System Properties” page – a handy way of checking the config of a machine you’re using.
These kinds of tips were once redolent of the doyen of desk-side PC support, where every second spared in visiting a user was time better spent in the pub. All of this is of course lost now, what with the risk in desktop sharing via Lync or Remote Desktop software.
The AltGr key normally found to the right of the space bar has a few odd functions that are not often needed, from a way of setting formatting in Office to a means of entering accented characters. Try AltGr+e for example to chuck an é into a name, and keep people with extravagant names happy that you’ve bothered to spell them correctly. There are other ways of doing the same thing, too – Office apps all have a means of using “dead keys”, eg CTRL+ ‘ followed by an appropriate letter would render an acute accent, or the CTRL+ ` (generally found on the key below Escape) will render the next letter with a grave. CTRL + Caret (^), Colon (:) or Tilde (~) will accent the following letter with the appropriate accent. See here for more international Office fun.
Finally, there’s the strange “menu” key, sometimes referred to a “application” or “right click” – usually found to the right of AltGr. It’s generally used as the equivalent of right-clicking a mouse, though can be followed up with other keys to quickly perform functions that might otherwise need a few clicks or menu commands.
One example – if you are looking to paste some text in a document or email, you can quickly press the menu button then follow with T if you only want to paste the text only (ie plain text, not the formatting) or M if you want to merge formatting.
Metro Modern application, the menu/application/right-click key also has the same effect as swiping up from the bottom of the screen (or pressing WindowsKey + Z).