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.
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. Insular (Irish) scripts, or 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, smooth 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.
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, 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 sound advice: Use uncials sparingly. Nowadays, they are more likely to be associated with clovers, leprechauns, green beer, and kelly green “Kiss me, I’m Irish” t-shirts than with mediaeval monastic scribes.
Single primes are used to mark feet, and double primes for inches. They are no substitute for apostrophes and quotation marks—a mistake made even in (shudder) company logos.
The apostrophe, or single closed quote, is used for contractions or possessives. It’s also used as an elision (e.g., “the ’30s and ’40s were horrible decades for Europe”—the apostrophe stands in for the missing “19”). Some refer to typographers’ quotes as “curly quotes” or “smart quotes.”
A favicon (or “favorite icon”) was the 16 pixel square image that precedes the website title in browser window tabs (see illustration). Favicons are now used for tile and touch icons, iPhones and Android/Chrome apps, so they need to be larger (WordPress likes a 512 x 512 pixel image) so that they can be distributed correctly on different devices and apps. Thumbnail logos, of which browser tab favicons are the smallest, are not legible, so we recommend a simplified logo, or an initial or monogram in the brand color(s). This applies to avatars and social media profile images as well.
Here’s our logo glyph at 75 pixels. It looks appropriate in a tiny browser tab or as an app image. Favicons have become hilariously complicated over the years, but the WordPress solution has made favicons easy to implement for millions of website admins.
“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 Anglo Saxon Chronicle in the early 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.
Note: Colonial American Puritans banned celebrations of Xmas owing to its pagan origins, and because wassailing and caroling by the hoi polloi encouraged rowdy demands for drinks from more prosperous citizens. Thank Anglicans, Catholics, and Lutherans for bringing Christmas celebrations to America. December 25th began festivities that lasted until January 6 (the Twelfth Day, also known as Epiphany) the big day for balls and festivities.
Old fashioned two and three color printing often overprinted spot colors (colors generated by a single press run) to create a third color. Both of these Hungarian matchbooks are two-color press runs of the same red and turquoise green. The print on the left makes use of a third, “black” color by running the red on top of the green (overprinting).
Four color process printing practically makes two or three color printing obsolete, and we know the reasons for this, but there’s a charm to two and three color printing. Skill and imagination were required to make use of overprints that created new colors without additional press runs.
See more old two-color printing and overprinted design on our Pinterest page.
The long “s” (∫) was common in print in Europe from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Language writer, Ben Zimmer, was looking for the earliest references to “seersucker,” but he found that his searches were hobbled by the problem of optical character recognition mistaking the long “s” for a “f” in older texts. He searched instead for “feerfucker” and discovered late 17th century references that predated the earliest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. You can hear the tale on the Lexicon Valley podcast. And although they varied a bit from one language to the next, there were rules on where the “∫” was placed in text. Apparently, confusing the “∫” with the “f” was not a problem in the three hundred years in which the long “s” was in common use.
The names sandblasted into the dark granite of the Vietnam War Memorial were set in Hermann Zapf’s Optima. The elegant typeface is tightly leaded in all upper case to stunning effect. The dots that separate the names recall classical chiseled inscriptions.
It’s hard now to imagine, but the “black gash of shame” inspired bitter controversy when the design was unveiled to the public. Now, after so many years of so many hundreds of thousands of visitors finding the lettered granite to be deeply moving, the dispute is scarcely remembered. Names are added with the care that a sacred national shrine would require.
We can all thank Maya Lin for defending her creation from Henry Hyde, James Watt and other flag-waving defenders of mediocrity who would have turned the wall into just another war monument.
“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. Take a moment to enjoy the rich artistry and craftsmanship in the everyday work of the Firelfy Press in Sommerville Massachusetts.