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Weird Typography

August 10, 2005 | Ten Surprising Typographical Facts

Growing up, I thought a lot of dumb things. I never really believed, for example, that people actually lived in Brooklyn—to me the borough and its off-kilter residents seemed as made up as Riverdale and an adolescent garage-band called the Archies. Now that I actually call Brooklyn home, however, nothing much surprises me anymore. The idea that I spend free time reading typography books rather than collecting baseball cards, for example, is no longer a cow-kick to the head. In fact, the explanation for how I dropped baseball cards for typography is simple. I inadvertently learned the origin of the ampersand and never looked back. That etymology and nine other weird and surprising typographical facts appear below.

1. The word “alphabet” is simply a joining of the first two Greek Letters, alpha and beta.

2. The correct terms for describing the difference between “ABC” and “abc” are majuscule and minuscule, but most non-typographers prefer uppercase and lowercase. The origin of these common terms is surprisingly literal—printers once assembled pages from subdivided drawers or “cases” of wooden letters, and because minuscules were used more frequently, these letters were kept at waist-level in the lower of the two cases.

Figure 13. The ampersand (figure 1) is both a ligature (two letters printed as a unit) and logogram (a single character representing a word) because it combines the letters “e” and “t“ to form “et,“ the Latin word for “and.“

4. While majuscule letters were originally chiseled in stone, minuscules were always handwritten, and, as a result, many minuscules are simply easier-to-write versions of majuscules. For example, “b” is “B” without the second loop, “e” is “E” with the upper two arms closed, and “l” is “L” reduced to a single stroke.

5. While often mispronounced to rhyme with “reading,” “leading” should correctly rhyme with “bedding” as this synonym for line-spacing takes it’s name from the small strips of lead that once separated lines of type on a printing press.

Figure 26. Letter systems can be either ideographic (in which characters represent words and concepts) or alphabetic (in which characters represent sounds). The distinction, however, is seldom clear-cut. The letter “A,” for example, began as an Egyptian ideograph for ox (notice the horns when “A” is viewed upside down, figure 2), but evolved into the alphabetic Phoenician character aleph. The Phoenicians, by the way, gave the world its first alphabetic letter system, and hence the term “phonics.”

7. Italic type is so named because it originated in Italy.

8. Because paper mills once required giant water wheels to turn wood pulp into paper, river water was often used in the fabrication, and the resulting “watermarks” eventually identified the paper manufacturer.

Figure 39. Because mechanical restraints limit typewriters to monospace letters, typewriter fonts (figure 3) feature particularly long serifs to help fill in the gaps.

10. English letters are Roman, but our numerals are Islamic. (Of course, Roman numerals exist, but we seldom use them.)

Know any other weird or surprising facts about typography? Please feel free to share them in the comments below. Digg Furl Reddit StumbleUpon Technorati


On August 19th, 2005 at 6:45 am, Clare Willison wrote:

Hi, Sorry to be a pedant but phonics are so-called because they are sounds (from phonos not Phonecian)! Hope you don’t mind my saying so. All the best, Clare.

On September 19th, 2005 at 3:49 pm, Lauren Ippsome wrote:

In the original Latin alphabet the letter “V” stood for both the “v” and “u” sounds. Centuries later, “u” got its own letter, and a new letter, “w”, was formed by combining miniscule “u”s or “v”s.

Great site, by the way.