In offline text, the asterisk tends to play a supporting role. A pair of asterisks may be used to anchor a footnote, or a trio to divide a text into sections, while in some European countries a ‘*’ is used to indicate the year of a person’s birth—“Christopher Hitchens (*1949),” for instance—with a dagger (“†2011”) denoting the year of death. For the most part, though, the traditional asterisk is a singularly underemployed mark. This is entirely apt to the circumstances of its birth: the asterisk (along with its partner in crime, the dagger) was among the first proof-reading marks, created out of necessity when a scholar at the ancient library of Alexandria set out to edit Homer’s epic poetry. For a traditional text, the fewer asterisks, the better.
Though it is rarely seen in print, online writers have taken the asterisk to heart. Following in the footsteps of comic strips such as Li’l Abner and Peanuts, whose characters *gulped* and *sighed* to convey non-verbal actions, the asterisk now assumes the role of online stage direction. With limited space or time to express themselves, a Twitter or Facebook user may *cough* to self-consciously draw attention to themselves, or *laugh* at something funny. As the linguist Francisco Yus put it, the asterisk encloses “predications that can function alone as complete performative utterances”—we step outside ourselves to describe our actions as if we are a character in a play. Strong stuff for a typographic wallflower!