Chop Suey typefaces

Chop Suey typefaces

“Ethnic” typefaces do have a place in graphic design, though you’re well advised to avoid them, unless your client insists. After all, who would give the carry-out box in the illustration a second thought if Moishe had used the typeface Shalom? Even so, sensitivity is recommended. For some reason, ethnic typefaces are only common in the restaurant and bar industries. The most recognizable and ubiquitous of “ethnic fonts” are the faux Asians, or Chop Suey typefaces: KanbanMandarin, Rickshaw, Ginko, Wonton, et al. But also available are cliché representations of IrishGreekArabTropical HispanicSlavic, German and French.

A piece by Paul Shaw in Print Magazine about ethnic stereotyping in graphic design got us to thinking about the many stereotypes that typography can convey: hippiestrekkiesscrapbookersprogrammer/geeksnew-agersbelievers in unicornsheadbangersfratboysneedlepointerstaggersrestroom taggersrenaissance fairgoerssecret agents, Klingons and cowboys all have their typographic parodies.

Wonton, an Image Club typeface

Wonton, an Image Club typeface

And since we all use the Roman alphabet, it would be redundant to stereotype ancient Latin, right? Guess again.


St. Patrick’s leprechaun, shamrock, green beer font

Book of Kells uncials

Uncials from the The Book of Kells (or some other illuminated insular document)

Every year we trundle out the “Gaelic fonts,” for St. Patrick’s Day. Uncials started out as a Byzantine script which enjoyed widespread use, but they are now often associated with the Book of Kells and are viewed as Celtic, or perhaps even less accurately as Gaelic. Uncials are a script form which was developed from Latin cursive during the early Byzantine era (third century) along with the new, smoother media of parchment and vellum. Ascenders and descenders were developed in uncials, contributing to the later development of upper and lower case in early printed Gothic typefaces.

Libra, a Bitstream typeface

Libra, an uncial face from Bitstream

With the invention of moveable type, upper and lower case blackletter, commonly called Gothic, replaced uncials. Blackletter was perhaps less legible than uncials, and was soon supplanted by the more readable Roman types that are still popular today (“Roman” may be a misnomer in that they were based on the easy-on-the-eye Carolingian Minuscule script). Uncials were quite dead for a few centuries, but they were later introduced as display types for printers in the 19th century for decorative and antiquarian purposes, and now, of course, they are available digitally. Uncials are now so closely associated with all things Irish, that they could be classified as “chop suey” typefaces.

The etymology of uncial goes something like, “from Latin uncialis, from uncia (inch),” but Alexander & Nicholas Humez, in their brilliant book ABC et Cetera: the Life & Times of the Roman Alphabet, offer other etymologies. Uncial also could have been St. Jerome’s reference to either illuminated letters, or to “hooked” letters, depending upon how uncialibus was misspelled by the Saintly Dalmatian.

Either way, St. Jerome had some sound advice: Use uncials sparingly. Nowadays, they are more likely to be associated with clovers, leprechauns, green beer specials, and kelly green “Kiss me, I‘m Irish” t-shirts than with mediaeval monastic scribes.


Type Anatomy


Here is our type anatomy chart, which was inspired by a similar diagram in U&lc magazine in the early 1980s. Access a high resolution pdf here. Besides typographic parts, we’ve included some sorts that will look familiar to most people, though the names of these characters may not be in common use.


Virgule versus solidus

Virgule versus solidus

The slash on our keyboards is a virgule. The name comes down to us from Latin through French (virgula “twig”). It served medieval European literature as a comma and still does this in English language poetry. It also separates things (2015/2016), and it stands in for “or” (as in and/or) and “per” (as in feet/second). We also use it to build level fractions (1/3).

pound sterling symbolThe solidus is slightly thinner and more oblique. Typographers use it to improvise fractions (see illustration). Solidus was the name of a Roman coin, and a Roman pound (libra) was comprised of 72 solidi. The British pound mark (£) is a descendant of the Roman libra. The symbol for the British pound sterling a stylized italic upper case L. It’s an abbreviated form of libra, “scale/balance.” The Latin pondo for “pound” was about twelve ounces, and libra is the source of the abbreviation “lb.” The English shilling is abbreviated with a solidus (e.g. “1 ⁄ 6” would be 1 shilling and sixpence).

dollar symbolWhile we’re on currency symbols, the dollar comes to us from the Spanish peso. A handwritten “Ps” was an abbreviation for pesos in the New World. In English, it was first recorded in the 1770s in manuscripts and is seen in print in the early nineteenth century.

Again, a tip of the sombrero to the brilliant Humez brothers.


Georgia: old style text figures

Georgia: old style text figures

We’ve seen more text figures (or lower case, “old style,” non-lining numerals) in graphic design in the past few years. Typesetters used text figures in the past, because they blend invisibly into text, but graphic designers have been largely ignorant of old style figures owing, in part, to the lack of affordable extended font families in the early years of desktop design. For decades now, most numerals in text have been “lining” or “modern” figures—essentially all caps, which look clumsy in text.

Matthew Carter designed Georgia in 1996 for Microsoft’s Web Core Fonts program, and it’s now everywhere online. Why? Because it was included (wisely) in the system software for both Macs and PCs. Web designers prefer system fonts for live type (type which is still editable—not a static graphic) so that common default fonts (think Times and Arial) will not be substituted.

Georgia, a lovely and highly readable typeface has handsome old style figures, and since Georgia is now ubiquitous, it has renewed interest in non-lining text numerals. Thank you Matthew Carter, and (dare we say it?) thank you Microsoft.


Ligatures: marriages of suitable characters

Ligatures: marriages of suitable characters

We’re all familiar with the ampersand, but there are other combined letterforms known as ligatures. In many Roman typestyles, the lowercase f runs into letters that follow, so Renaissance type foundries solved the problem by creating individual sorts for the five most common problems (ff, fi, fl, ffl and ffi).

Etymology: the Latin verb ligare, to bind, gives us the typographic term ligature for connected letters. Common cognates would be league, ligament, and ligate (to tie off an artery).

Beyond the five standard Roman ligatures, many type families offer more extensive sets of ligated characters. Open Type now makes the use of common ligatures effortless and offers choices in an assortment of contextual and discretionary ligatures.


Latin is all Greek to me

Latin is all Greek to me

When you have to design a project but you don’t have text yet, “greeking” is a method of filling in space where the written content will go. It can be accomplished by simply sketching horizontal lines with a pencil, or, with the advent of design software, by dropping Latin paragraphs into text boxes. Designers call this placeholder text Lorem Ipsum, because these are the first two words of the most commonly used greeking text.

Greeked pencil layout

Greeked pencil layout by Dixi Gail Hall

The idea of greeking is to not distract decision makers with questions of text messaging that will be provided later (and can be haggled over in someone else’s office). Rough layouts can also help copywriters get some idea of how much text would be appropriate.

You can generate Lorem Ipsum text online, or perhaps more colorful language would suit your project.



Ampersands, &c.

Ampersands, &c.

The ampersand has been with us perhaps since the first century CE in one form or another. It’s a conjoining of the e and t, forming the Latin et, which means “and.” You can still make out both letters in even the most abstract designs since typographers know that the ampersand is a ligature and design it as such. Because ampersands are so highly stylized, they can add verve to even the stodgiest of typefaces.

Designers, take note: as Robert Bringhurst has written, the italic versions of ampersands are less restrained than their roman counterparts. “Since the ampersand is more often used in display work than in ordinary text…there is rarely any reason not to borrow the italic ampersand for use with roman text.” An italic ampersand can bring verve, and a completed appearance, to even the stodgiest logo—like a colorful necktie.

Victorian alphabet

Pre-Victorian alphabets included the ampersand as the 27th letter.

Etymology: Pre-Victorian grammar schools included the ampersand as the last letter of the alphabet. In spelling recitations in which a word is added after the letters are spelled out (e.g., “d, o, g—dog”), a word that is a single letter (“a” and “I”) would be repeated with the Latin per se (“by itself”), thus “a” would be “a per se a.” Children ended recitations of the alphabet with “x, y, z and, per se, and” which through rote repetition became the garbled “ampersand.”

The ampersand is used as a letter in “&c,” a perfectly acceptable abbreviation of et cetera.



The exclamation point — “a sign of failure”

no-to-exclamation-pointsThe punctus exclamativus (or punctus admirativus) first appeared in the latter half of the 14th century to mark the end of an exclamation. The Italian poet Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia claimed to have invented it. The influential Italian humanist Coluccio Salutati revived the exclamativus and its use spread in the 15th century.

Although the exclamation goes by many names, in the American typographic and printing trades, the exclamation point was referred to as a “bang” or a “screamer.” Bang still exists in programming, as in “Postscript files always start with percent-bang-PS” (%!PS).

Traditional etymologies of the exclamation mark, recounted by the brilliant, amateur classicists, Alexander & Nicholas Humez in their book ABC et Cetera go like this:

“…the exclamation point … is derived either from an abbreviation of Latin interiectiō (interjection) or from the Latin interjection Iō! (‘Hey!’).” In their most recent book, On the Dot, the Brothers Humez explain that the exclamation mark was known in English as “note or mark of admiration (a straight-forward translation of Iacopo’s term punctus admirativus),” and the term “exclamation point” was adopted in the 17th century.

If you accept the traditional etymologies, the morphology of the exclamation point, as with the question mark, appears to boil down to the convenience of abbreviation. Medieval scribes stacked the i above the o, the o became a point, and thus evolved this energetic punctuation mark.

Note: Avoid overuse

Our advice: exclamations should not be used in business correspondence, but online communications have made this once rarely-used punctuation mark all too common, and (along with emoticons) they’ve slipped across the blurred boundaries of every form of electronic communication.

“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
—F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”
—Elmore Leonard

“So far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading ‘laughter’ to a studio audience.”
—Miles Kingston


Happy Holidays, Merry Xmas, etcetera

xmas-is-the-same-as-christmas“Xmas” has been used in English for centuries. The X is an abbreviation for Christ, from the first letter of Greek Christos. First appearing in English in the twelfth century, it was spelled with Xp or Xr, corresponding to the Greek “Chr,” thus Xres mæsse meant “Christmas.”

Haliday, a thirteenth century term, came from Old English haligdæg, or holy day from halig “holy” and dæg “day.” The meaning “religious festival” came to be equated with something like “day of recreation.” In American English, “the holidays” are exclusively associated with Christmas and the new year. The religious roots are undeniable, so “happy holidays” is as authentic a Christmas greeting as any other.