At’s what we’re talking about

The ubiquitous, iconic “at” symbol’s  roots are medieval. Scribes perhaps added a swash to the d in the Latin ad (to or at). It was included on typewriters as early as 1885, but there was no place for @ in traditional typesetting, and there was no nook for the character in the California Job Case.

Ray Tomlinson's at signThe @ symbol has long been associated with retail sales and accountancy, but in 1971, Ray Tomlinson (23 April, 1941–5 March, 2016) was working on a way to communicate over a new computer network—the predecessor of the modern-day Internet. “I looked at the keyboard, and I thought: What can I choose here that won’t be confused with a username?” The @ sign was an easy choice; it wasn’t commonly used in computing, so there would be no confusion. “It’s the only preposition on the keyboard.”


Is the question mark an abbreviation?

Is the question mark an abbreviation?


We’re not sure how the question mark in its present form came to be, but according to Alexander and Nicholas Humez, medieval scribes indicated a question by adding the interrogative quaestio at the end of what otherwise would have been a declarative sentence. Sometime before the Renaissance invention of upper and lower case letters, the repetitive writing of the word quaestio led to an abbreviated Qo, which then naturally led to a stylized, abbreviation: “Q” with the “o” diminishing to a simple dot underneath.

Others posit the credible idea that the question mark evolved from an inverted semicolon—the eroteme (question mark) in Greek is a semicolon. This may sound fanciful, but take a look at the evolution.

Use italics for emphasis

Use italics for emphasis

Italics are the elegant way to emphasize text. Semibolds and bold faces are for headlines and posters, or setting off categories in a list. They break up the flow of text, and degrade readability. Similarly, setting words or phrases in all caps is a sure way to turn readers off. Nobody likes to be shouted at.

Type does come in large families of varying weights nowadays, but as Robert Bringhurst said of boldface (which did not exist until the nineteenth century), “The marriage of type and text requires courtesy to the in-laws, but it does not mean that all of them ought to move in, nor even that all must come to visit.”


Ye olde deliberate antiquarianism…

Ye olde deliberate antiquarianism…

Where does that archaic article “ye” come from? “Ye” is 16th century substitution of a y for a þ, an Old English character known as a thorn (originally a Germanic rune) that represented the th sound. The characters y and the þ resembled each other in Old and early Middle English handwriting. In late 15th century, English printers, whose types were still founded on the continent, did not have the þ so they substituted the y, which read a  þ when set in type.

“Ye” was meant to be pronounced as “the.” It dropped from usage, but was revived in the 19th century as a self-conscious antiquarianism.

Note: The “ye” in the carol, God rest ye merry gentlemen was not an article, it was a familiar second person pronoun (“thou” would have been the singular), and thus, another word altogether.


Don’t be out of sorts

Don’t be out of sorts

To be “out of sorts” is to run out of needed letters in the hand-setting of type.

I operated a Linotype in the late ’70s, setting hot lead slugs of type. My coworker, Harry, would set up the Heidelberg windmills, get them both running, and then stand in front of the cases setting type by deftly choosing sorts (individual pieces of metal foundry type) from the California Job Cases with his free hand and placing them in the composing stick in his other. Harry was deaf, so the noise of the shop (we also had two offset duplicators running much of the time), or the jarring crash of a metal galley dropped on the concrete floor never bothered him.

When we’d throw in, that is dump galleys of type onto the granite counter to be replaced into the cases, he had no trouble distinguishing sorts. I was befuddled by the p, d, b, and q’s (they look like quadruplets), but they didn’t seem to slow Harry in the least.

“If I were to be sat down at a computer and told, ‘here, you can do whatever you want,’ I wouldn’t know what to do. There would be too many choices,” says John Kristensen, of Firefly Press in this gorgeous short film. No garish bitmap filter or clever vector technique can replace the artistry and craftsmanship in what Firelfy Press in Sommerville Massachusetts produces every day.

—Joel Mielke


Virgulilla: doubly diminutive

virgulilla-tildeFacebook post by an Argentinian type foundry, Sudtipos, brought up the word virgulilla, which is Spanish for something like ‘an accent or mark.’ Usually it refers to what we call the tilde (which probably also derives from the Spanish), but can also mean any diacritical mark resembling a comma, line or dash. According to one source, mediaeval scribes abbreviated tilde originates from Latin, as a “mark of suspension” in place of omitted letters in abbreviations (e.g., Anno Domini would be Aº Dñi). And, according to one source, mediaeval scribes abbreviated the phoneme “nn” as “n~” in order to distinguish it from “m.” Placing the mark above the n saved space (vellum was expensive).

We have an English cognate in ‘virgule,’ which means ‘slash’ (and for typographers it means the keyboard slash, as opposed to the solidus, or fraction-bar slash). Virgule comes to us from the Latin virgula, a diminutive for virga, or ‘rod.’ The illa suffix in Spanish is also a diminutive, and thus virgulilla is doubly diminutive.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Tilde also carries the effect of diminution. The Spanish verb tildar means ‘to add tildes where needed,’ but it also means ‘to diminish or denigrate’ when applied to a person.



Indecorous display

Indecorous display

©1982 B. Kliban — Notice that he didn’t use the current term “font”

Bernard “Hap” Kliban (1935–1990) offered Barf Bold, a Decorative Typeface in one of his hilarious cartoon collections in the early ’80s. Kliban created the cartoon genre that consisted of a single panel with a droll, third person narration (e.g., “Houdini escaping from New Jersey”), a style which Gary Larson of “The Far Side” later became famous for.

Kliban’s correct use of the term “decorative typeface” (he could have also used “display face”) is especially notable now that everyone seems to use the term “font” sweepingly to mean a printed face, a typographic family, a specific typestyle, or (correctly) the licensed software that allows us to reproduce type on our computers.


Isolated glyph: deciphering Al Jazeera’s logo

Animation created by Jovan Cormac

Al Jazeera has one of the most recognizable logos in the world. The plucky network began broadcasting in 1996 and has survived US bombings of their bureaus in both Kabul and Baghdad. President George W. Bush even considered bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar, yet Al Jazeera has become a trusted provider of broadcast news worldwide.

The distinctive logo consists of a teardrop-shaped glyph with the words Al Jazeera below in Arabic or English. What non-Arabic speakers might not realize is that the glyph itself also spells out “the Island,” al Jazeera, in Arabic script. It was quickly designed by a Qatari man who entered it in a design contest, where it was selected by the Emir of Qatar.

By the way, the al in Al Jazeera is a definite article, which is the source of so many “al” words in Spanish (e.g., alcalde, albóndiga, almohada). Some of these Iberian Arabic words are now common in English and other European languages — almirante (admiral), albacora (albacore), alfalfa, alcohól, albaricoque (apricot), alcachofa (artichoke) algoritmo (algorithm).


Quotation marks & apostrophes versus primes

Quotation marks & apostrophes versus primes

Single primes are used to mark feet, and double primes are used to mark inches. A common mistake in setting type is the use of primes and double primes in place of apostrophes and quotation marks. We see this mistake made even in company logos.

The apostrophe, or single closed quote, is used for contractions or as a possessive. It’s also used as an elision (e.g., “the ’30s and  ’40s were horrible decades in Europe”). The apostrophe stands in for the missing “19.”

Graphic design software refers to typographers’ or “curly” quotes as “smart quotes.” Designers can employ them automatically by setting preferences in their programs. Using primes, rather than apostrophes and quotation marks should be avoided.

Epigram, epithet, epigraph, epitaph…

Mel-Blanc-grave-markerThe language quarterly Verbatim once published a mnemonic, in the form of a poem, to help us differentiate a confusing group of similar-sounding, but not-to-be-confused words.

An epithet or an epigram could make for a suitable epitaph, but there isn’t room on a tombstone for an epigraph, is there?




Primer by David Galef, Oxford, Mississippi

The epigram’s a pithy saying, Full of paradox and wit.
The epithet’s a brief description. A clever name that scores a hit.
The epigraph’s a type of preface, Like the lead-in to a writ.
The epitaph is seen on tombstones, Related to who’s under it.
All four are commonly confused, But in each usage, three don’t fit.