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Definition: A dividing line used in print and mathematics. A forward-leaning vertical line. More commonly known as the ‘forward slash’.

Pronunciation: Vir-gew-l

Origin: From the Latin virgula – meaning both ‘little twig’ – and ‘punctuation mark’. Entered into English in the early 18th century.

Why this word?

This word is a classic example of a commonly known entity with an uncommonly known name. That diagonal line used between numbers when writing fractions? That’s a virgule. It is also widely used in texts where there may be more than one application – think of ‘he/she’, or ‘and/or’. You will also see it widely used in sports – think of, for example, every reference you’ve ever heard of to Enoch West. Everyone knows that he was the top scorer in English soccer in the 1907/08 season …

But the uses of the virgule do not end there. It can represent the word ‘per’ in measurement. For example, I’m sure that everyone knows that the average Pronghorn Antelope can run at 61 miles per hour – but it takes such a terribly long time to write that down. Thankfully, if we employ the virgule, we can now write that the average Pronghorn Antelope can run at 61 mi./Hour. I’ve saved myself about 1.2 seconds of valuable time. Thank you, virgule.

The final use is when quoting poetry in long form. Take a random poem – say, Pablo Neruda’s Ode to French Fries.  If you wanted to quote from it, but didn’t have a virgule, you’d have to waste a lot of space on your page thus:

What sizzles
in boiling
is the world’s
into the pan
like the morning swan’s
and emerge
half-golden from the olive’s
crackling amber.

The Virgule allows this:

What sizzles/in boiling/oil/is the world’s/pleasure:/French/fries/go/into the pan/like the/morning swan’s/snowy/feathers/and emerge/half-golden from the olive’s/crackling amber.

Yet again, the virgule has proven its worth.

How to use this word?

I’ve outlined the many functional uses of the virgule above – yet, I know that most of you will simply continue to use it mainly as a character in your url addresses. Let’s revive it. Next time you’re telling someone about a website – don’t use the word ‘forward slash’. Use the proper term for that Swiss-army-knife of punctuation, the all powerful, omnipotent, and most benevolent virgule.

In virgule we trust.


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Written by Sean Carabini

Seán Carabini is a Dublin-based author. To date, Seán has written the humorous travel memoirs 'Sticking Out in Minnesota' and 'American Road', as well as 'American Road: The poems' - a book of travel poetry related to the memoir. Seán has also developed a podcast based on the book - subscribe to the American Road podcast today! Seán is a committee member of the Irish Writers' Union.

Chrissy Skelton is Seán Carabini's editor. A graduate of the University of Minnesota's Anthropology programme, Chrissy emerged armed with an arsenal of little-known words and cumbersome jargon - all of which will now be off-loaded onto 'unusedwords' readers!


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