Historical typographic symbol

Three variants of obelus glyphs

An obelus (plural: obeluses or obeli) is a term in typography for an historical mark that has resolved to three modern meanings:

The word "obelus" comes from ὀβελός (obelós), the Ancient Greek word for a sharpened stick, spit, or pointed pillar. This is the same root as that of the word 'obelisk'.

In mathematics, the first symbol is mainly used in Anglophone countries to represent the mathematical operation of division. In editing texts, the second symbol, also called a dagger mark †, is used to indicate erroneous or dubious content; or as a reference mark or footnote indicator. It also has other uses in a variety of specialist contexts.


Use in text annotation

See also: Obelism Further information: Dagger (typography)

The modern dagger symbol originated from a variant of the obelus, originally depicted by a plain line −, or a line with one or two dots ⨪:÷. It represented an iron roasting spit, a dart, or the sharp end of a javelin, symbolizing the skewering or cutting out of dubious matter.

Originally, one of these marks (or a plain line) was used in ancient manuscripts to mark passages that were suspected of being corrupted or spurious; the practice of adding such marginal notes became known as obelism. The dagger symbol †, also called an obelisk, is derived from the obelus, and continues to be used for this purpose.

The obelus is believed to have been invented by the Homeric scholar Zenodotus, as one of a system of editorial symbols. They marked questionable or corrupt words or passages in manuscripts of the Homeric epics. The system was further refined by his student Aristophanes of Byzantium, who first introduced the asterisk and used a symbol resembling a ⊤ for an obelus; and finally by Aristophanes' student, in turn, ...read more

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