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February 4, 1895:  The Semi-colon.

As early as 1895, after coming off the disappointing loss of the dash to rival Gutwald Buetterstrapp*, Erstl von Hemholtz had confided in his longtime confident and friend, Über Nuebergen-Meinsterhoffenschlager that he was experimenting with something radical, “a mix... no, a combination... of a comma and a period...” what he was calling a “sort-of-comma.”  Convinced that punctuation wasn’t confusing enough, he began stacking punctuation on top of each other in the summer of 1883, while vacationing in the Alps.  Early attempts had him placing the comma on top of the period, but, as he stated in a letter to Nuebergen-Meinsterhoffenschlager, “I feel the period holds the comma down.  Without the period, the comma would rise much higher and take on a life of its own.”  It wouldn’t be until 1903 that von Hemholtz would finally let the comma rise and shock the entire world with the invention of the apostrophe.  But for now Hemholtz was mired in what he called his “stacking phase.”  He confessed once again to Nuebergen-Meinsterhoffenschlager that he “liked the symmetry” of one period stacked on another, but went on to state that he couldn’t “really see any purpose in such a thing.”  It would be another eight years, also in 1903, before he would resurrect the colon, commenting at the time, “I was wrong all along in thinking I needed a purpose.”

It was on February 4, 1895, while attending a reception at Baron von Yamanstiffer’s, while “watching another guest become violently ill after eating spoiled clams,” that it came to him.  Writing to Nuebergen-Meinsterhoffenschlager, Hemholtz stated, “It was there all along; I just needed to put the period on top of the comma!”  It wasn’t until that following summer, at the World Grammar Convention in Berlin, that Hemholtz introduced to the world what he had now come to call the “semi-colon.”  When asked by colleagues what the purpose of such a thing was, Hemholtz answered, “Purpose?  Why, it has no purpose.  It does absolutely nothing.”  In what Hemholtz later wrote in his autobiography as his finest moment, he received a standing ovation that lasted “a full twelve minutes.”  It is still a point of academic debate how Hemholtz could’ve invented the semi-colon before he truly invented the colon. 

 *  Whereas researchers such as Le Heungh in Paris and Armorwald, who had begun a movement to establish the English equivalent of L’academie du Français in London, believe that there should be no appreciative difference between the hyphen (which had been introduced at the 1878 World Grammar Convention by Fregelmeyer in Oslo to overwhelming approval), and the proposed dash (which Hemholtz claimed to have envisioned as early as 1872), Hemholtz was convinced that a dash should be considerably longer “to prevent certain confusion.”  Early prototypes by Hemholtz were over three inches long.  Stated Hemholtz, “Let’s see you confuse that baby with a hyphen.”  Finding such a length cumbersome, it was Buetterstrapp, in 1885, who came up with the idea of “simply doubling the stupid thing.”