Chances are you give little thought to the slash mark (/), but as it turns out, this little piece of punctuation has an interesting history.
Origins of the Slash Mark
The slash was invented, according to reporter Keith Houston, by a twelfth-century Italian scholar named Buoncampagno da Signa. He intended the slash, which he called the “upright virgule” to indicate a brief pause. And the “level virgule,” or dash (–), to indicate a longer pause.
Medieval English poetry including Chaucer’s often used virgules to separate lines of text. We sometimes indicate line breaks in poems and songs with slashes. For most purposes, though, the upright virgule was shortened, and it became the modern-day comma.
The Dawn of the Computer Age
In the twentieth century, the word slash was used to describe the virgule. By then the slash mark was used mostly in abbreviations like “c/o” (meaning “care of”) and in constructions like “and/or” or “25 km/h.”
That changed with the advent of computers. Early computer programmers incorporated slashes – as well as back-slashes (\), which were introduced in 1958 – into their coding languages. Then in 1996, Houston reports, internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee decided to use slashes in URLs. (Hence addresses like https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2015/09/slash.html). So even non-coders got used to seeing those diagonal lines around.
The twentieth century saw the rise of another slash-related phenomenon: slash fiction. Slash fiction is a type of fan fiction in which fans write about a romantic or sexual relationship between two fictional characters (usually two men) in a movie, TV show, or book. These relationships are not romantic or sexual in the original franchise, so the people writing the fan fiction make them up.
The name “slash fiction” is said to have originated in the 1970s among fans of the Star Trek franchise. Writing stories about the relationship between Kirk and Spock was popular, and fans referred to these stories as “K/S.” People simplified this to slash, and it was this label that stuck as fans began writing similar stories about other franchises. Slash fiction was relatively obscure until the 1990s, when the advent of the internet allowed the slash fiction community to grow.
Many linguists believe that young people are currently turning the slash mark into a new kind of connecting word. By the close of the twentieth century, it was already fairly common to use a slash, in writing, to connect two descriptions of the same thing, as in “singer/songwriter” or “guest bedroom/office.”
Then, somewhere along the way, the usage began to shift. In electronic communication, people began to write out slash sometimes, rather than typing /, and in spoken communication people increasingly verbalized slashes. Instead of writing “My roommate is an actor/dancer,” people started writing things like “My roommate is an actor slash dancer.” Instead of reading “actor/dancer” aloud as “actor dancer,” people began saying it as “actor slash dancer.” In 2014, the Oxford English Dictionary acknowledged this trend in 2014 with a new entry for the word slash.
In 2013, language expert Ann Curzan identified at least three emerging uses of slash, based on her undergraduate students’ electronic communications. Here’s a summary of her findings with some of my examples.
The slash mark can distinguish between what someone ought to be doing and what that person is actually doing.
I went home to clean my room slash watch TV.
The Slash Mark can be Used to Connect an Idea with a Second Idea That’s Somewhat Related to, Or Somewhat Follows From, The First.
Do you want to go get food slash can we discuss the project while we’re eating?
The Slash Mark Can Be Used to Indicate A Change in Topic
How was your weekend? Slash I like your shirt.
Will such usage become mainstream? Keep an eye (and ear) out for any new usage patterns. We just might be living through a turning point in the strange history of the slash.