Granted this applies to more than English, but I hope it's not off topic.

Recently I wondered when the exclamation point/mark entered our language and how. I did search the site for an answer and didn't find one.

With Googling, I accumulated a lot of interesting tidbits (below), but no good answer. The most repeated story follows.

Smithsonian.com posits that ! has it's origin in the Latin exclamation of joy, io, where the i was written over the o.

I was pretty surprised by this, as I have never seen it that way (given, I don't have a lot of Latin manuscripts hanging around.) They did state, though, that:

...it wasn’t until 1970 that the exclamation point had its own key on the keyboard. Before that, you had to type a period, and then use the backspace to go back and stick an apostrophe above it.*

Wikipedia gives the same origin as Smithsonian.com with a touch more detail:

The modern graphical representation is believed to have been born in the Middle Ages. The Medieval copyists used to write at the end of a sentence the Latin word io to indicate joy. The word io meant hurray. Along time, the i moved above the o, and the o became smaller, becoming a point.

The sources of the above are not easy to access.

Sentence First gave a colorful account of the various names for the exclamation mark, beginning with Ben Johnson's term for it: admiration mark, but, sadly, no history.

The American Bookmaker, A Journal of Technical Art and Information states in the May, 1888 edition:

The popular notion has always been that… the exclamation point (!) owes its existence to the Latin word Io (joy)… This explanation of the origin… is ingenious and one might almost say picturesque. For it, the world is indebted to one Willem Bilderdijk, a Dutch poet and philologist, born at Amsterdam in 1756. This entirely fanciful exegesis… goes to show that, with true poetic insight, Bilderdijk looked to his imagination rather than to scientific investigation for his facts.

I'm inclined to believe the above. Again, however, no actual history is given.

Interestingly, in an unrelated entry about dropped caps, a blogger posts an image of an illuminated manuscript that has what might possibly be interpreted as exclamation points (e.g. see Col. 1, third line from the bottom.)

enter image description here

However, above that, the same mark is found where there is a question in the Latin Vulgate (starting line 8 from the bottom):

Infirmatur quis in vobis (strange mark) inducat presbyteros ecclesiae et orent super eum unguentes eum oleo in nomine Domini: et oratio fidei salvabit infirmum (and here again the strange mark) et adlevabit eum Dominus et si in peccatis sit dimittentur ei...


Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man . (<- Note, no question.) And the Lord shall raise him up...

And even further up:

ecce beatificamus qui sustinuerunt sufferentiam Iob audistis (strange mark) et finem Domini...

Which translates to:

Behold, we account them blessed who have endured. You [have heard of the patience of] Job (strange mark, translation not exact because the syntax is a bit different) and you have seen the end of the Lord...

So, I am no closer to the answer than I was when I began.

Any help would be appreciated.

I actually remember doing this on my dad's Smith-Corona. :(

NYT opinion writer Ben Yagota wrote, "A friend’s 12-year-old daughter once said that in her view, a single exclamation point is fine, as is three, but never two. My friend asked her where this rule came from and the girl said, 'Nowhere. It’s just something you learn.'" Two exclamation marks look strange to me, too.

"They were apparently also casually known by the names shriekmark, screamer, bang, pling, smash, soldier, and control (via About.com); gasper, startler, and dog’s cock (from Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves); the more alliterative dog’s dick; and slammer. Plausible but unverified names include ball-bat, boing, dembanger, eureka, screech, shout pole, smash, spark-spot, and wham."

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    From Etymonline : The punctuation symbol known as the exclamation point (1824) or exclamation mark (1926) was earliest called an exclamation note or note of exclamation (1650s), earlier note of admiration (1610s). Another name for it was shriek-mark (1864).
    – user66974
    Oct 7, 2015 at 21:09
  • @Josh61 - That entry offers an explanation for when the mark was first called an exclamation mark, but does not answer the question. :) Oct 7, 2015 at 21:17
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    That's why I made a comment and not an answer :), but I think it is interesting.
    – user66974
    Oct 7, 2015 at 21:23
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    A good example of a good question from senior user :)
    – user66974
    Oct 8, 2015 at 7:35
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    I refer to "it wasn’t until 1970 that the exclamation point had its own key on the keyboard" and I add only a curiosity: the Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter had it in the fifties. I remember it was really special typewriter.
    – alsa
    Oct 16, 2015 at 18:18

4 Answers 4


I hesitate to take this topic even farther afield, yet getting at the origin may take it there.

An unsupported article by Frank Mulligan titled "The exciting history of the exclamation mark!" (Taunton Daily Gazette, Feb. 22, 2010), makes these claims:

Archeologists believe they identified the first pre-historic exclamation mark in a cave painting unearthed in northern France depicting a lone, proud hunter poised to hurl a spear at a wooly mammoth on one wall’s face.

On the opposing face of the cave’s wall, as one proceeds deeper into the interior, the scene depicts a lone, not-so-proud hunter trampled underneath a wooly mammoth followed by that unmistakable symbol: a dot topped by a line pointing skyward.


The exclamation mark’s first apparent use in writing dates back more than 5,000 years to the Egyptian hieroglyphs adorning the burial chamber in the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza.

The passage preceding what Egyptologists are convinced is the first exclamation mark used in an actual sentence translates roughly as: “It took a lot of work to build this thing!”

... there is evidence that Homer would break off during particularly exciting portions of “The Odyssey” to stand on a round rock and clasp both of his hands together over his head, much as a modern cheerleader will do to signify the letter “I,” in order to approximate an exclamation mark for his audience.

For my part, I'm willing to accept cave paintings as a form of writing. However, the lack of support for this account may indicate it is as fanciful as the account featuring a highly mobile 'io'.

More recently (2 September 2015), a quite evidently well-researched and far from fanciful account by Keith Houston, available in an article titled "The mysterious origins of punctuation" at BBC's Culture site, traces the origins of the exclamation mark and other punctuation marks from a system devised in the 3rd century BCE by an Egyptian librarian named Aristophanes.

Aristophanes' system used three dots:

... aligned with the middle (·), bottom (.) or top (·) of each line. His ‘subordinate’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘full’ points corresponded to the pauses of increasing length that a practised reader would habitually insert between formal units of speech called the comma, colon and periodos. This was not quite punctuation as we know it – Aristophanes saw his marks as representing simple pauses rather than grammatical boundaries – but the seed had been planted.

By Houston's account, Aristophanes' system of dots was abandoned, never having been more than a method of marking pauses, before being resurrected by Christians in the 6th Century:

As it spread across Europe, Christianity embraced writing and rejuvenated punctuation. In the 6th Century, Christian writers began to punctuate their own works long before readers got their hands on them in order to protect their original meaning.

The early Christian punctuation was, however, confined to

... decorative letters and paragraph marks (Γ, ¢, 7, ¶ and others)

until, in the 7th Century, Isidore of Seville

rearranged the dots in order of height to indicate short (.), medium (·) and long (·) pauses respectively.

Moreover, Isidore explicitly connected punctuation with meaning for the first time: the re-christened subdistinctio, or low point (.), no longer marked a simple pause but was rather the signpost of a grammatical comma, while the high point, or distinctio finalis (·), stood for the end of a sentence.

Now writers began to embellish the three-dot system:

Some borrowed from musical notation, inspired by Gregorian chants to create new marks like the punctus versus (a medieval ringer for the semicolon used to terminate a sentence) and the punctus elevatus (an upside-down ‘;’ that evolved into the modern colon) that suggested changes in tone as well as grammatical meaning. Another new mark, an ancestor of the question mark called the punctus interrogativus, was used to punctuate questions and to convey a rising inflection at the same time (The related exclamation mark came later, during the 15th Century.)

Having traced these origins, however, Houston glances over any individual account of the exclamation point:

This, then, was the state of punctuation at the height of the Renaissance: a mixture of ancient Greek dots; colons, question marks, and other marks descended from medieval symbols; and a few latecomers such as the slash and dash. ... when printing arrived in the mid-1450s, with the publication of Johannes Gutenberg’s 42-line Bible, punctuation found itself unexpectedly frozen in time. Within 50 years, the majority of the symbols we use today were cast firmly in lead, never to change again: Boncompagno da Signa’s slash dropped to the baseline and gained a slight curve to become the modern comma, inheriting its old Greek name as it did so; the semicolon and the exclamation mark joined the colon and the question mark; and Aristophanes’s dot got one last hurrah as the full stop.

Houston's account is not necessarily at odds with other accounts, but he does seem far less inclined to speculative flights of fancy based on hesitation marks and scribal errors in ancient manuscripts. Additionally, he doesn't pair images of these unerasable and possibly accidental artifacts made on very expensive 'paper' with speculative graphics depicting the 'evolution' of...the question mark?

Evolution of the question mark

  • Thank you for this wonderful answer! To both laugh and learn is a real pleasure. Oct 8, 2015 at 5:44
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    It's great to see Isidore of Seville cited by someone other than Thomas Aquinas.
    – Sven Yargs
    Oct 8, 2015 at 21:31

I found a very insightful excerpt from the book, Spinoza's Ethica from Manuscript to Print: Studies on Text, Form and Related Topics (Link takes you to page with excerpt).

The exclamation mark (punctus exclamativus or admiratlvus) is thought to have originated in humanistic circles in the latter half of the fourteenth century. According to Parkes (1992, 49), its invention has been claimed by Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia. It is, however, unclear who was the author of an Ars punctandi in which the exclamation mark was first proposed; see Ullman 1963. 35,111. It has been attributed, wrongly, to Petrarca; Ullman takes Coluccio Salutati to be its author. The earliest instance of the exclamation mark is to be found in a manuscript by Salutati from 1399; Parkes 1992, pl. 30, reproduces a page from this manuscript. For references to this new sign by some grammarians (including Aldus), see Greidanus 1926, 212, 216-8, 222."

I found an image that contains a piece of the manuscript which is believed to be the first instance of the exclamation point. The image also offers an evolution of the mark:

enter image description here

Coluccio Salutati, De nobilitate legum and medicine, 1399 (BNF). First use of an exclamation mark (before the last word). Historian Malcolm B. Parkes, Salutati revised itself punctuation of this manuscript. | Translated from French SOURCE

I also found some other good sources. This comes from a web article, here and cites a book called On the Dot (preview available)

“…the exclamation point … is derived either from an abbreviation of Latin interiectiō (interjection) or from the Latin interjection Iō! (‘Hey!’).” In their most recent book, On the Dot, the Brothers Humez explain that the exclamation mark was known in English as “note or mark of admiration (a straight-forward translation of Iacopo’s term punctus admirativus),” and the term “exclamation point” was adopted in the 17th century. [...] Medieval scribes stacked the i above the o, the o became a point, and thus evolved this energetic punctuation mark.

Tl;dr: The exclamation point originated sometime between 1300s-1400s in humanistic circles, Lacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia has claimed inventing it, however Berthold Ullman credits Coluccio Salutati, and the earliest instance of the mark comes from a manuscript by Salutati from 1399. Comes from the latin interjection, "Iō" and scribes stacked the 'i' over the 'o'. It was originally called the "mark of admiration" in English and wasn't called an "exclamation point" until the 17th century.

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    Nice work! I tried to fine a folio of the work; not able to yet. Thanks! Oct 7, 2015 at 21:53
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    I managed to find an image that includes part of the manuscript. It also offers an explanation for the formation of the exclamation mark. See above :)
    – shaunxer
    Oct 7, 2015 at 23:17
  • There's a typo just above the image, "iamge".
    – Silverfish
    Oct 8, 2015 at 10:44
  • @Silverfish That's what edits are for, as longs as you find enough chars to edit. Oct 8, 2015 at 12:04
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    @Pierre it wasn't enough and I couldn't see anything else to change! (I know some people add a few space characters at the end of a paragraph to circumvent the limit but that seemed to be gaming the system to me!)
    – Silverfish
    Oct 8, 2015 at 15:25

I tried to translate the French wikipedia article:

The origin of exclamation mark is uncertain. According to one theory, this symbol comes from the joy exclamation, "io" in Latin, abbreviated with a "i" above an "o".

Another theory states that it finds its origine in musical notation.

Around 1360, Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia, who wrote Ars punctuandi (the Art of punctuating) claims to be the inventor of the exclamation point, which he called "admiration point". It consisted of two points with an oblique line above them, tilted to the right - a combination resembling the "scandicus", a musical notation element (neume) used to mark ascending notes, before the 5 lines notation was invented.

The first known "admiration point" is to be found in De nobilitate legum et medicine, by Coluccio Salutati in 1399.

The exclamation mark shape was finalized with the development of printing. It is found in the 14th century in the "Mayence psalter" by Peter Schöffer and Johannes Fust publshed in 1457.

In France, it is found with other recent signs of punctuation in "Roman" font - Freiburger , Gering and Kranz (Paris 1470), Michel Toulouse Michel (Paris, 1472).

It appears nearly 50 years later in the Grammatografia of Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples published by Simon de Colines in 1529, and in the 16th century in works of Rabelais and Marot published by Étienne Dolet.

  • Wow, much more helpful than the English! Thank you! Oct 7, 2015 at 21:54

It does indeed come from Io as Wikipedia says.

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    Source, please? Oct 7, 2015 at 21:30
  • @medica Isn't "as Wikipedia says" a source? Oct 8, 2015 at 0:50
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    @michael_timofeev No, you need to reference it in your answer directly. Links or mentions are not considered references academically, and they aren't here either
    – J Sargent
    Oct 8, 2015 at 0:53
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    Hello, Christopher Yurkovich, and welcome (belatedly) to English Language & Usage.On the off-chance that you weren't sure how to embed a link in your answer on this site, I've done so for your Wikipedia link. As you can see (by looking at the raw code), it's a simple matter of enclosing the link words in square brackets followed immediately by the link URL in parentheses. At EL&U linking to relevant reference authorities is much esteemed.
    – Sven Yargs
    Oct 8, 2015 at 4:58
  • It didn't occur to me that I should link to Wikipedia. Thank you, Sven Yargs! Oct 8, 2015 at 5:56

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