Watch your Ps and carets.

Let’s face it, most of us don’t know our asperands from our epershands. Including me. That’s why I recently went looking for the names of all those symbols that lurk in anonymity just above the numbers on our keyboards. (The fact that they lurk above those digits also makes it easy for me to tackle them in numerical order.)

! First up is the exclamation point (!) or exclamation mark, which should be used only after true exclamations and commands, warn Strunk and White in “The Elements of Style,” and not as an attempt to emphasize simple statements. Using it incorrectly, said F. Scott Fitzgerald, “is like laughing at your own joke.”

@ We all know that the ampersat (@) or asperand stands for “at” in our email address. But way back before the age of computers it stood for “at the rate of” and was also used in accounting.

# Long before becoming the hashtag, that symbol that helps us group our tweets, the octothorpe (#) did double duty, both as the number sign, when it preceded a number, and as the pound sign, when

it followed a number, as in: Cat #3 weighs 20#.

$ The good old dollar sign is what it is. It stands for those bills some of us still carry around in our wallets. Even if you now pay with plastic or with your phone, the dollar sign still helps you know how much money is left in your account. Originally written using two vertical lines, the dollar sign represents the letters US with one laid on top of the other.

% Try as I might, I couldn’t come up with any conclusive reason why the percent sign (%) is written the way it is. I did learn that it’s likely of Italian origin and over time evolved from per cento to p100 to the current symbol. I also learned the symbol is used to indicate that the number preceding it should be understood as a proportion multiplied by 100. But that’s higher math to me so we’ll move right along.

^ Up above the keyboard number 6 we find the caret (^), which is used in a manuscript to show where a letter or word should be inserted. It’s also used above a letter in some languages, indicating pronunciation. Be careful not to confuse “caret” with “carat” (a unit of mass for precious stones), “carrot” (a root vegetable), or “karat” (a part of pure gold in an alloy).

& The ampersand (&), which is also called the epershand, stands for “and” and comes form the linking of the Latin letters “et.”

* The asterisk (*), which can be made using as many as eight spokes, is used to indicate things such as an omission or a footnote. Also called a dingbat, the asterisk is often used to replace some of the letters in obscene words. Common misspellings of “asterisk,” such as “asterik,” are called metathesis.

( ) Last up are the open and close parentheses, which enclose parenthetical material with the effect of subordinating it.

And that’s the end of this piece about symbols — period, dot, point, tittle, full stop.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”

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