Clerk and Dagger

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Luis García (Zaqarbal),, Wikimedia Commons

Recently I had the sad duty to list a contributor to a volume as deceased. The standard means of doing so in typography is with a symbol called a dagger (†). When I was young, I thought this was intended to be a cross, but it became clear, as I looked more closely, it wasn’t that at all. The origins of typographic marks go back to the classical Greeks. Used to mark dubious places in manuscripts, the asterisk was to show places where something had to be added to the text while the dagger was used to show deletion. Well, it wasn’t a dagger then. The earliest form was called an obelus and it could be a plain line, but was often shown with the symbol we now painfully associate with long division: ÷. This odd sign was said to represent a dart, a spit, or the sharp end of a javelin. Since things were to be cut out of the manuscript, a sharp instrument would be ideal. Early textual criticism, then, gave us symbols that have now been commandeered by math.

These signed evolved with time. By the Middle Ages the asterisk and the dagger could be used to indicate a pause when reciting Psalms. (Those of us at Nashotah House in the 1990s know all about pauses when reciting Psalms.) Medieval scribes marked up manuscripts religiously. Eventually the asterisk came to be associated with footnotes—a function that it still has, mostly in non-academic texts. The dagger was used for a footnote if an asterisk had already been used on that page. Beyond that, the double-dagger came into play. The function and the form of the obelus had now evolved solidly into the dagger form. The obelus continued on in math, at one time to mean subtraction, but finally settling down to represent division. Appropriate, given its graphic origins.

The dagger and asterisk were the earliest signs of textual criticism. Literalists today still don’t understand the concept, since all ancient documents of the Bible are copies of copies of copies. Nevertheless, how did a sign indicating a spit upon which an animal was roasted come to represent the dearly departed? Since asterisk and dagger often work as a pair, the most obvious way that this worked out was in representing the birth and death years of a person. An asterisk before the name meant “born in,” while a dagger in the same position meant “died in.” As a kind of typographical shorthand, then, a dagger after a name meant the person had died. Although it sounds dramatic and not a little violent, it is really only death by textual criticism. That, I suspect, is something most biblical scholars especially will be able to comprehend.

Mere Typography

Juxtapositions are important. The way that words are laid out on a page can say as much as the words themselves, as any poet knows. In the light of the ongoing media frenzy over Rev. Terry Jones’ misguided attempt to set everything right with the world – through fire – and a natural attempt to keep related stories together, the New Jersey Star-Ledger ran two stories on page three yesterday that display the deep ambivalence many Americans feel about Islamic culture. At the top of the page the headline reads, “In Florida pastor’s eyes, burning of Quran is an act of war against evil.” At the bottom of the same page runs an article headlined, “Iran: Stoning sentence for adultery under review.” Two or more faces of Islamophobia on the same page.

As remarks made on my previous post on the subject attest, many westerners simply do not understand Islam. This is perhaps to be blamed on the all-too-prevalent attitude that “history is boring.” Have people been asleep for the past thirteen centuries? Islam is much closer in time to the origin of Christianity than it is to us. With concerns of supersessionism and the covert desire to capitalize on one’s religion, Christianity has been content to ignore Islam as long as those in charge have been able to maintain capitalist quo. When forced to face the fact that two major monotheistic religions have designs on the same world, some members of each camp are only too ready to declare those in the other “evil.” An attempt to understand other religions would go a long way toward ending the carnage.

Perhaps the phobia should more properly be labeled religious xenophobia. We dislike those different from us. Rare is the person who, when confronted with a contrarian, will attempt to understand rather than destroy. Students may readily qualify for higher education degrees without ever having to face the question of how to handle different religious outlooks. We would rather pretend that they are not there. The ambivalence shown towards the issues of Islam in the Star-Ledger could just as easily be turned on Christianity, or even Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Sikhism. Religions are conflicted because people are conflicted. Instead of recriminating, we should all take a long, serious pause in front of a mirror before we start accusing other religions of being evil.

Who said what now?