The semicolon

Lucrezia's lover, and some of the things he and his homies did

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. The first rule: do not use semicolons. Semicolons are transvestite hermaphrodites. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

– Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

In class a week or so ago we discussed some “facts” we had learned about writing. What came to my mind was “structure.” The first facts I learned were that every story has a structure, and even if it is absolutely structureless, it has structure via the inverse; it opposes structure or runs away from it, or denies, but there’s still an it. We spent a lot of time in class discussing how first learning about story structure allowed us all to see where the structure could be bent and broken and morphed; giving us this feeling of craftiness, of openness toward and hopefulness for an inspirational moment that shifts the tried and true just so to make them gasp again.

Later that week, I talked with The Homegirl about semicolons. Imma paraphrase what we said, which was:

that colons and parentheses are one thing, see (they really make it clear), but semicolons remain aloof. They’re vague. I told her about how I learned that a semicolon separates two full sentences and ideas from each other; and that they had to relate to each other, but that was where the vagaries start. That’s where the juice and the magic be; you know? it kinda gives you these opportunities to do whatever, and see what happens; and maybe it’s cool and maybe it is just nothing at all but play. The Homegirl told me that the inventor of the semicolon was Lucretia Borgia’s lover. I was like, SAY WHAT?

She was like, “a period walks into a bar …” and then “what’s this period’s job history?” and later on “What kinda drink woulda period buy if period bought someone a drink at the bar?”

How bout all the others? Which dude is the question mark at the club?

Think about it.


Here is what I know about the history of the semicolon:

A man named Adus Manutius – or Aldo Menuzio, which I actually prefer – along with an aristocratic humanist and poet, Pietro Bembo; and Francesco Griffo, a craftsman punchcutter from Bologna, conspired to publish De Aetna. De Aetna is about climbing the volcano Aetna, and it was the first book published by Aldine Press in 1496, after Menuzio; his publishing homie, Andrea Torresani; and Pier Francesco Barbarigo, a nephew of the Viennese doge; founded the press in 1494.

The book launched Bembo off on his career, right into the arms of Lucrezia Borgia. Lucrezia had that power, and she was Bembo’s lover for a year or more, and they wrote the best letters ever written back and forth, about love and passion and sex. When they parted he dipped to other cities to write more books; one he dedicated to her. She kept her family’s star in the heavens; and became a legend.

This excerpt from a book by Cecelia Watson in the Paris Review, is a fantastic speakeasy, long-cigarette rendition of the story we’re telling:

“Nearly as soon as the ink was dry on those first semicolons, they began to proliferate, and newly cut font families began to include them as a matter of course. The Bembo typeface’s tall semicolon was the original that appeared in De Aetna, with its comma-half tensely coiled, tail thorn-sharp beneath the perfect orb thrown high above it. The semicolon in Poliphilus, relaxed and fuzzy, looks casual in comparison, like a Keith Haring character taking a break from buzzing. Garamond’s semicolon is watchful, aggressive, and elegant, its lower half a cobra’s head arced back to strike. Jenson’s is a simple shooting star. We moderns have accumulated a host of characterful semicolons to choose from: Palatino’s is a thin flapper in a big hat slouched against the wall at a party. Gill Sans MT’s semicolon has perfect posture, while Didot’s puffs its chest out pridefully. (For the postmodernist writer Donald Barthelme, none of these punch-cut disguises could ever conceal the semicolon’s innate hideousness: to him it was “ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly.”)”

Made me think of sexting, this affair has; I wonder if I still have a copy of the letters I wrote when I was 18 lying around somewhere.


baby do you love my

Sascha Matuszak
Sascha Matuszak

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