obelisk, obelus

I have, from time to time in these notes, mentioned my fondness in my youth (and still) for Asterix comics. The heroes of this series are a small, clever Gaul named Asterix and his enormous sidekick, Obelix.

Their names, like all the names in the series, are obvious plays on words. All the Gaulish male names end in ix by analogy with Vercingetorix, the great Gaulish chieftain defeated by Caesar. All the Roman male names end un us. Gaulish and Roman female names end in a. Other nationalities get similar treatment; Goths end in ic (after Aleric), for instance, and there is an Egyptian named (in English) Ptenisnet (represented in hieroglyphics as a tennis net). One of my favourites is the Gaulo-Roman chief and pugilist named Cassius Ceramix. (I’ll explain that one at the end if you don’t get it.)

So anyway, Asterix and Obelix. Asterisk and Obelisk. One is small, the other large, and they both end in isk, easily changed to ix for wordplay. It never occurred to me that asterisks and obelisks might have more of a connection than that, because I only ever thought of an obelisk as a large stone thing (similar to the menhirs that Obelisk was forever quarrying and toting around).

But do you know what obelisk comes from? It comes from Greek ὀβελίσκος obeliskos “small spit” (as in for roasting). That’s a diminutive of ὀβελός obelos.

It may seem interesting enough that this term for a not-too-large pointed metal thing came (by analogy of shape with one, or with a nail, also called obeliskos) to refer to a quite large standing pointed stone thing (and I do not find the word obelisk to seem all that pointy, except for the /sk/ at the end, perhaps, and maybe the fact that the word progresses backwards in the mouth as you say it, from a blunt start to a sharp end; obelisk is, however, suitable for a large obstructive object). But you may not know that asterisk and obelisk are actually two of a type.

Two of typography, to be exact. You see, there is another kind of thing called an obelisk, and there is a related thing called an obelus (the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, in fact). They are marks on a page, and they came from the same place as the asterisk. The blog Professor Carmichael’s Cabinet of Curiosities has a nice exposition on the origin of the obelisk, but I will give you the short version: the asterisk and the obelisk were invented by Homeric scholars in Ancient Greece and Alexandria. They used them to mark passages: the asterisk for a word (or words) that should have been there but wasn’t; the obelus for any text that was deemed suspicious, dodgy, probably spurious.

The asterisk, that little star, hasn’t really changed much over the ages. The obelus, however, started out as a simple line — and then gained a dot below, a dot above, or both: ÷ . This “should be gotten rid of” mark came in math to indicate subtraction; in the 1600s, the ÷ version came to be used to indicate division. But there was another version of the mark, or rather another mark: †, the one we also call the dagger. The classical name for this is in fact obelisk.

Not such a bad name for it, really, this mark that is as baleful as a basilisk. After all, even still it marks obsolescence and obscurity and objection (and not oblation but ablation); before a person’s name, it indicates that they are dead (unnecessary in an obituary, of course), and before a word in a place such as the Oxford English Dictionary, it indicates that it is obsolete – no one uses it anymore, except perhaps in Scrabble and spelling bees and blogs. Contrast this with the shining little light of the star, *, which usually has something more positive to say – in etymology, it has been used to indicate reconstructed but unattested words (words that should have been there, you may say), though the related use of it to indicate words or phrases that are unattested because nobody ever says them (“this is ‘bad’,” the dialectological asterisk says) is, true, a bit more like an obelisk.

So: obelus, obelisk. There you have it, holus-bolus, in an Augenblick. You can look down on a page and see, sharing a name with an enormous hieroglyphic stone needle, a little dagger. And usually it plays second fiddle to an asterisk. You’re not so likely, after all, to be reading critical works on ancient texts. The sublime and erudite, in latter days, may be reduced to footmen, and the sometime-mighty asterisk and obelisk are now most often pressed into service for footnotes, asterisk first, then obelisk… then diesis. Diesis? Double dagger: ‡. Dieses irae indeed – dagger meets dagger. So it progresses: first the bright star, then the dark dagger, and then it really goes to hell. Well, you knew when you started down that road that it was your asterisk.

(Oh, by the way, to explain Cassius Ceramix: the boxer better known as Muhammad Ali was born and started his career as Cassius Clay.)

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