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In particular, was the expression coined by a single individual or is it attributed to a document?

The only thing I've been able to find was a non-cited reference to its origins in the 19th century on Wikipedia. There are plenty of sites on their usage and shapes, but nothing as to when or who coined the expression bullet point.

Their use, according to Google Ngrams, sky-rockets sometime around 1985, peaking in 2004, which seems odd (to me) if they originated a century or more earlier.

Edit: The coining of the phrase (who first used 'bullet points' and when) is the primary interest. If someone knows the origins of the bullet (or other symbol) usage I would also be interested. I accept that the latter of these may be out of scope, so disregard at your leisure.

  • 1
    Fer cryin' out loud! You have a list. It's a little sloppy so you can't tell where each item in the list begins, so you add a dash or dot in front of each item. Centuries later (after bullets are invented) someone decides to call the dash/dot a "bullet". A century or two after that the department of redundancy department adds "point". – Hot Licks Dec 15 '14 at 2:33
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about bullet points, not E L & U. – Drew Dec 15 '14 at 2:47
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    @Hot Licks: Your timeline's a bit off; according to the OED, the use of the word "bullet" for the typographical symbol dates back to around 1950 (although I suspect dashes and asterisks were used for lists long before that). – Peter Shor Dec 15 '14 at 3:34
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    I'd like to know about both bullet points use and the term. The former of these I understand may be out of scope, but I believe the latter is within scope. I'll edit the question accordingly lest it attain the final close vote. – Minnow Dec 15 '14 at 16:09
  • @Hugo the edits are appreciated. – Minnow Dec 16 '14 at 13:23
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+50

The OED's first citation for "bullet point" (in an online draft addition) is in 1983:

1983 Datamation Sept. 221/1 Each chapter concludes with a bullet-point list of ‘things to think about’ or ‘things to remember’, which is particularly helpful if it's been a few days between chapters.

The term "bullet point" originally seems to have meant not the typographical symbol, but the text marked by the bullet symbol • in a list. That is, a bullet-point list is a list of points you are making in a presentation. For example, a Harvard Graphics manual (the predecessor of PowerPoint) in 1990 says:

Pressing Enter a third time creates the first bullet point and places the cursor to the right of the bullet.

However, the term "bullet point" was very quickly transferred to mean the symbol as well.

I have a theory of when and why bullet points were introduced, but absolutely no confirmation.

Looking through 19th century books, I can't find any bulleted lists. Lists are either indexed by numbers, or items are identified with spacing and indentation. When typewriters started being widely used in the early part of the 20th century, people started preparing typed documents with less care than they had taken with printed materials, and it was too much trouble to renumber lists while editing documents. So they started using asterisks instead of numbers. Printers took these lists marked by asterisks and used typographical bullet symbols instead.

  • Sounds very plausible. – Minnow Dec 16 '14 at 2:29
  • It's a small point, but on its face, the Harvard Graphics reference SEEMS to use bullet point to describe the symbol marking the list item. Is there something in the context that overturns that impression? – ScotM Dec 26 '14 at 14:39
  • @ScotM. The Harvard Graphics reference says that it places the cursor to the right of the bullet, not to the right of the bullet point. The bullet point pressing Enter creates consists of a bullet and text to the right of it (to be typed by the user). – Peter Shor Dec 26 '14 at 14:43
  • Clear enough :) – ScotM Dec 26 '14 at 14:45
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+100

The bullet is not new, nor is its name. It has been used by typographers long before the general public caught hold of it.

You asked about the origin of the bullet for this purpose. It turns out that the bullet has been used since time immemorial: merely look at Trajan’s Column or Gutenberg’s Bible. Bullet was used by typographers as the name of the mark (or ornament) long before the general typewriter-bound public became aware of it.

According to Robert Bringhurst in his highly regarded The Elements of Typographical Style, a “bullet” is merely:

bullet    A fat midpoint, not always round, used as a typographic flag. Bullets are commonly hung in the margin to mark items in a list, or centered to separate larger blocks of text. See also midpoint. [ᴜ+2022, +25C9,25E6. &c.]

In the side-notes, Bringhurst illustrates the three main types of bullets: a round •, a square ■, and a square rotated 45 degrees ◆ like Gutenberg used. Other sorts of bullets historically used by scribes in manuscripts and by hand-compositors of metallic type include ❥ and ❧, of which the latter is also a type of fleuron.

Regarding the underlying midpoint, Bringhurst has this to say (in part; there’s lots more there):

midpoint    An ancient European mark of punctuation, widely used in typography to flag items in a vertical list and to separate items in a horizontal line.

The blackletter midpoint used by Gutenberg for his blackletter face was not round, but square and rotated 45 degrees so that there was a point at the top.

A hand compositor or even someone using a Linotype or Monotype machine would nearly always have several possible weights of midpoint available, with the heavier ones serving as what you think of as a bullet. Moreover, many special fonts specifically created for typographer’s ornaments were created throughout the centuries. In modern typography, think of dingbats as one one example of this.

So in fact, typographers and scribes have always used bullets for this purpose. It is only those laboring under the tyranny of the typewriter who normally had to go without. Even so, the MIDDLE DOT character · has been a feature of many character sets beyond ASCII, including even Latin-1 / ISO-8859-1, which has the character at codepoint 0xB7, the same as Unicode’s U+00B7. Although often used as such, this is very much a light-weight bullet, there because it was needed for languages like Catalan as Bringhurst points out further down in the section that I quoted above.

In Graphic Design in Germany: 1890–1945, by Jeremy Aynsley, the author notes in describing a work published in 1928 that:

Footnoting was marked by a disc bullet-point set in the text with the note in lighter type in the margin.

So bullet points long antedate modern computing, let alone Microsoft PowerPoint®.

  • The question I'm left with is whether the name has anything to do with bullets from a gun. – Chris Sunami Dec 17 '14 at 23:51
  • Before Powerpoint and its predecessors, they were called bullets and not bullet points. Typographical bullets are round, and bullets from a gun used to be round. – Peter Shor Dec 18 '14 at 0:00
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    I am convinced that the bullet is not new. Do you have any evidence that the name is not new? The OED (in a 2006 draft edition) has the first citation for bullet from 1950 (although I wouldn't be surprised if it had already been in use as printers' jargon for several decades by then), and the first citation for bullet point from 1983. – Peter Shor Dec 18 '14 at 11:13
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    Will have to wait 24 hrs before I can hand over the bounty... – Minnow Dec 23 '14 at 16:18
6

Bullets are so-named because they are round. The etymology is

1550s, from Middle French boulette "cannonball, small ball," diminutive of boule "a ball" (13c.), from Latin bulla "round thing, knob"

(-from etymonline.com)

Since the objects fired by guns used to be round balls, they became known as boulettes, or bullets. Similarly, the little round circles that adorn paper are also "little balls". And when you order spaghetti and meatballs in French, it comes with "boulettes", or small balls of meat.

1

Bullet point with reference to a typographic marker seems to be the application of an older expression bullet replacing the prefix mid- in another old technical expression midpoint, and the timing of that substitution process seems to be the point of the OP question.


Bullet

WNWD (1960)

  1. a small piece of lead, steel, or other metal formed into a ball...to be shot by a firearm.

Unlike modern bullets, the first projectile was a small round "ball," from boulette in French. The little round dot of a bullet point is likewise a small round "ball", or bullet in English.

OED

  1. Printing A small symbol used to introduce each item in a list, for emphasis. (1950)

ORIGIN

early 16th century (denoting a cannonball): from French boulet, boulette 'small ball', diminutive of boule, from Latin bulla 'bubble'.

In The Elements of Typographic Style, published in 1997, Robert Bringhurst defined bullet with respect to typography (p 273):

A large version of the midpoint used as a typographic flag. Bullets are commonly hung, like numbers in the left margin to mark items in a list, or centered on the measure to separate blocks of text. See also midpoint.


Point

WNWD (1960)

n. 2. a dot or point in print or writing, as a period, decimal point, vowel point, etc.

19. the exact or essential fact or idea under consideration

v.t. 4. to give (a story, remark, anecdote, action, etc.) force

5. to show or call attention to (usually with out)

v.i. 2. to call attention to

ORIGIN

Old French point, a dot or prick , L prictum, a dot, neuter of prictus, pp. of pungere, to prick

The noun definition 2 describes the generic round symbol • of a bullet point, making the term redundant since bullet and point both refer to the same small round mark.

The noun definition 19 describes the text being emphasized by a bullet point implying an adjectival function for bullet.

The verb definitions describe the function of inserting a bullet point.

Inquiring minds respond to a rambling explanation: "What is your point?" That request for a "verbal bullet point" to highlight the speaker's essential idea, parallels the main purpose of the typographic midpoint, an archaic synonym of bullet point in modern written communication:


Midpoint

Again in The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst defined midpoint with respect to typography (p 281):

An ancient European mark of punctuation, widely used in typography to flag items in a vertical list and to separate items in a horizontal line. The blackletter midpoint used by Gutenberg for his blackletter face was not round, but square and rotated 45 degrees so that there was a point at the top.

The typographic flag has been used since the European printing press was invented in the 15th century. Gutenberg’s Bible, published by 1454, contained a variation of the round bullet, called Aufzählungspunkt "count out point" in German. It is very unlikely that the English term bullet was used in that fashion until sometime after the printing press was exported to all of Europe from 1466 (Rome) to 1477 (England).


Bullet Point

The phrase bullet point was used in the 1865 book Eight Lectures Delivered at the School of Musketry with reference to ballistics:

I am going to explain to you how we correct the error due to defect of figure, as well as keep the bullet point foremost. It is done by rifling...

The OED lists Bullet Point as a word with respect to typography:

NOUN

1 Each of several items in a list, preceded by a bullet symbol for emphasis:

use bullet points to remind you what to say

1.1A bullet symbol.

The OED first citation for "bullet point" as a typographic mark is in 1983:

1983 Datamation Sept. 221/1 Each chapter concludes with a bullet-point list of ‘things to think about’ or ‘things to remember’, which is particularly helpful if it's been a few days between chapters.

Forethought Inc. and later Microsoft popularized the bullet point in it's ubiquitous PowerPoint, released as Presenter for the Macintosh in 1984, then purchased and released as Microsoft PowerPoint on May 22, 1990. Development, marketing and use of this software would be a significant driver in the sky-rocketing usage of bullet point after 1985.


Conclusion

The phrase bullet point was used for pistol and rifle projectiles from the mid 19th century, but that specific expression does not seem to have been used to describe the typographic marker until 1983.

The mental distinction between the essential point being made and the bullet • marking that essential point is so subtle that all three discrete entities can be independently referred to as a bullet point:

  • the marker • is a bullet point in the sense of dot as in midpoint, bullet describing that mark with a first documented use of 1950.
  • the text item is a bullet point in the sense of exact essence implying an adjectival function for bullet.
  • the text item with the marker • is a bullet point in the sense made popular by Microsoft PowerPoint from the mid 1980's with a documented first use of 1983.

Until more evidence becomes available, we can safely attribute the expression bullet point to the 1983 Datamation article, but its popularity belongs to Dennis Austin, Thomas Rudkin and their team, who developed what is now called PowerPoint.


This answer gratefully acknowledges the primary research of tchrist, Mr. Shiny and New, and Peter Shor. All of their answers were so good, it seemed wise to weave them together into a single comprehensive answer with additional research data.

  • The translation of The New Typography with the word bullet point was first published in 1995, not 1945. – Peter Shor Dec 26 '14 at 2:14
  • Thanks, Peter. I read an article incorrectly. This seems to make that reference to "bullet-point" irrelevant with regard to the antiquity of the word for two reasons: the original was not in English but German, and it seems the Anslet reference was a "description" of a bullet point, not a reference to the English word bullet-point. – ScotM Dec 26 '14 at 13:16
-1

I am sure it was in use long before, but IBM's Script Markup language in the 60's was part of IBM's Document Composition Facility (DCF) already had a bullet point concept as a construct and its usage was for an unordered list of items. DCF and early HTML allowed for Unordered, Ordered and Simple lists, where a simple list had no bullets or numbers. These lists were later added to IBM's GML (Generalised Markup Language) in 1969 which is a lot like the early days of HTML in concept. It was difficult to print a true bullet shape in those days because you would have had to own a specific chain for a printer (that supported the font which had the correct character) or resort to a dot matrix printer when they came along, so we often used a dash or an asterix as translated by the declared standards for a document. Once laser printers were more prolific, the standard bullet became lumps of dark ink in shapes in the middle of the line space. I would say that the single mid line bullet has had more visibility since the changes in printers and display font flexibility.

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