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This not exactly about TeX, but about typography, and the TeX SE is the closest place I think of to ask this question in.

In academic texts, I’ve very often come across a cross (no pun intended; I mean this: ). It is used as a footnote marker after people’s names, and for a moment, it always makes me think its purpose is to denote that the person has passed away (which is not the case).

Why is this symbol used?

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    Your reasoning is wrong way round. The dagger (\dag) looks like a cross, which is probably why it is also used for death. It is just a glyph, used for various things. Other than footnotes, it also appears in mathematical equations from time to time, for instance to denote some type of pseudo-inverse or Hermitian adjoint. However, I can't answer the question why the shape of a dagger specifically is used as a glyph. Note that there is also a double dagger (\ddag). More information: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dagger_(typography). – JJM Driessen Sep 19 '15 at 21:37
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    My guess would be that the dagger symbol is used as a footnote marker due to historic reasons and as you never need it for anything else. – Martin Thoma Sep 20 '15 at 6:42
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    @JJMDriessen Thanks. When I wrote the question, I didn’t know anything about it, but thought it looks like a cross, and that it was used as a death mark, but also in other contexts. Now, after reading the replies and the wiki articles I know more. – Philipp Sep 20 '15 at 7:44
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    General typography questions should be asked at Graphic Design instead. (So this should be migrated.) – curiousdannii Sep 20 '15 at 11:28
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    The dagger can be used to indicate that a person is recently deceased, as in a list of contributors to an edition (in which case it might be taken to mean "the late X" or "X of blessed memory"), and I have seen it used to mark death dates, where the asterisk marks the birth date. – musarithmia Sep 20 '15 at 20:44
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It is not a cross, it is a dagger. It is used for footnotes if an asterisk has already been used. See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Note_(typography)

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    Interesting! The article also mentions that the dagger is actually (in some cases) used to “indicate death, extinction, or obsolescence.” – Philipp Sep 19 '15 at 18:04
  • @Philipp Yes, and the dagger is also called crux philologorum, as it is in some way connected with pain. – Przemysław Scherwentke Sep 19 '15 at 18:07
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    I’m a fairly new user. Should I edit my question with the right names to make it easier for other people to find the answer? – Philipp Sep 19 '15 at 18:11
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    @Philipp I think no. As the same source says "While daggers are freely used in English-language texts, they are often avoided in other languages because of their similarity to the Christian cross. In German, for example, daggers are commonly employed only to indicate a person's death or the extinction of a word, language, species or the like.", it is probable, than other users will also search a cross. – Przemysław Scherwentke Sep 19 '15 at 18:14
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    @PrzemysławScherwentke -- and since the word "dagger" appears in the answer, a search on that word will pull up this question even if the word is not in the question. – barbara beeton Sep 19 '15 at 18:17
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The dagger, which sometimes looks like a cross, has long been used to as a foot- or sidenote. Here's an example from 1582, though the practice is much older than this:

Decretales Gregorii IX

Here's a link to the page on Google Books

As you can see, the dagger is used (here) at a "secondary level" from the main set of glosses, which used suprascript letters. The dagger in this case is to the note on the far right by the editors of this edition of the book to make a comment about different readings for the word Bononiae (= Bologna).

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    Extra thumbs up for the image documentation – daleif Sep 19 '15 at 18:18
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    @daleif -- Cheers! Reading TeX.SX and old law books pretty much sums up how I like to spend my Saturdays.... It is rare when the two coincide! – jon Sep 19 '15 at 18:24
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    @daleif -- Well, canon law: The Liber Extra (aka the Decretales) of Pope Gregory IX, which was published/promulgated back in the 13th century. This edition represents the work of the so-called "Roman Correctors" who "fixed" the deficiencies of the earlier version in a number of ways; it was issued during the reign of Gregory XIII. And it remained in force (for Catholics) until 1917. For Europeans, canon law and Roman law were two chief components of the "ius commune" until the era of national codifications in the modern era (the Napoleonic Code of 1804 was among the first of these). – jon Sep 19 '15 at 18:36
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    @Sebb -- I suppose the "why" is implicit: the dagger has been used for centuries as a "footnotemark" (to use LaTeX terminology). It was one of many symbols used in this way. Isidore of Seville's Etymologies 1.21 discusses many marks used in late antiquity / early middle ages for textual criticism (not the dagger, however). – jon Sep 20 '15 at 3:05
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    @moose -- The Bavarian State Library in Munich has an absolutely fantastic collection of digitzed incunabula (= books printed before 1501) and other early printed books. See here (check the highlights!); for example, here's the results for Bartolus of Saxoferrato one of the most influential (and therefore widely printed) of the medieval jurists (he worked on Roman law). Usually you can download a PDF of the scan. – jon Sep 20 '15 at 15:46
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The cross mentioned is more a cross-looking symbol. It is more precisely, or more generally, called the dagger symbol (\dagger in LaTeX). It appears as a variant of the obelus (same root as an obelisk), a symbol apparently invented and used by Greek scholars (potentially by Zenodotus or Aristarchus), with many sword-shaped variations:

dagger variations

It was used to mark corrupted, doubtful, interpolated or spurious texts, or even superfluous passages in ancient manuscripts (initially, Homeric epics). Other variants are depicted below, from Characters from the Margins of Ancient Texts:

Daggers and double daggers, or dieses

Asterisks and Obeli: Categories of Usage provides many examples and details, such as in the following picture:

enter image description here

It is composed of an horizontal bar, accompanied by two dots, one above and one below. Its uses and interpretations have varied along time. For instance, the sign has been occasionally used as a subtraction sign in mathematics. It was first used for division by mathematician Johann Rahn in 1659.

It is called dagger or obelisk equally in Henry Beadnell, A guide to typography: In two parts, literary and practical, 1859.

The word obelos (ὀβελός) in Greek stands for "spit roast" or "roasting jack". It was meant to roast meat devoted to Gods. Obelisk is its diminutive form (small "obelos"). It may originate from belos (βελός), the Greek for arrow, dart, missile.

There is thus a strange weaponry connection (dagger and arrow) behind this typographic sign.

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According to my typographic bible, Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style the traditional order for footnote marks is asterisk *, dagger \dag, double dagger \ddag, section \S, parallel $\parallel$, and paragraph \P. He notes that beyond the double dagger the order is not, and never has been, familiar to most readers.

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