The asterisk is a typographical sign, *. It may be seen in printed forms with five, six, seven, eight or sixteen points; in handwriting, it is commonly formed with four strokes (producing eight points). In older manuscript, it was often drawn as a four-pointed cross with a dot in each corner. (All these signs are conventional representations of a star: the word asterisk is from the Greek ἀστερίσκος (astĕriskos), 'little star', a diminutive of ἀστήρ (astēr), 'star', through Latin.)
- In Music, a similar sign is used to mean 'take your foot off the sustain (or 'loud') pedal of the piano'.
Its most common use before developments especially in computer typography and typesetting was as a footnote marker. This is rare in current academic writing, although still to be seen in non-academic texts. It may also be used in reference books to indicate a cross-reference, where *Shakespeare, or Shakespeare*, may be read as Shakespeare (look up his entry). In general use in print, an asterisk (or three asterisks * * *) may be used as a marker of an ellipsis, and particularly in the days when obscenity in print was much more controlled, to mask words regarded as unacceptable, either (formerly) to conceal identity, as when a politician may be named as My Lord B********** (= Buckingham), or when Henry Fielding, names a character in his parodic novel Shamela (1741) 'Squire Booby', or fool, after the name of the original character in Richardson's Pamela (1740) Mr B*; or because they are taboo ('f*ck' or 'G*d'), in which case it is often only the vowels that are so marked. It is this usage that is mocked in the humorous verse
- An author owned an asterisk
- And kept it in his den
- Where he wrote tales which had large sales
- Of erring maids and men,
- And always, when he reached the point
- Where carping censors lurk,
- He called upon the asterisk
- To do his dirty work!
- anthologized, according to an internet source, in Silcock (1952), although AWE hasn't yet traced the original writer.
Students in Higher Education may see it in some of the following specialized uses current in some subjects.
- In education, most British HE students will be familiar with the use of asterisk (commonly pronounced 'star', IPA: /stɑːr/) as denominating the highest grades available in GCSE and A level examinations. (A * or A star is a grade above A, which was previously the highest obtainable.)
- in Linguistics, the asterisk has two main conventional uses.
- in historical linguistics (~etymology), * indicates a hypothetical or reconstructed form - a word for whose existence no evidence has been found, but which has been deduced by application of philological rules;
- in prescriptive linguistics, the * indicates a form regarded by the writer (which usually corresponds with the orthodox opinion) as incorrect, and therefore to be avoided by academic writers.
- in Mathematics and mathematical subjects, an * usually denotes an operator. In applications for general readers, this is commonly the operation 'multiply by'; to specialists, it may be many other operators which should be defined in the textbooks teaching that branch of mathematics. Sometimes it serves to distinguish between similarly labelled algebraic and other symbolic functions.
- In computing, the * has precise - if different - meanings in various programming languages. Ordinary users (those outside Computer Science and programming, etc) may be most likely to see it used as a 'wildcard' character. In the OED, for example, an asterisk in a search item indicates a string of any alphabetical characters of any length from 'a' … upwards. The dictionary's example says "c*t finds cat, caught, commencement, conflict, consent, cot, cut, etc." - that is, any string of letters that can be found as a word which begins with 'c-' and ends with '-t'.
Do not confuse asterisk and asterix.