Merry Xmas, Happy Holidays, &cetera

Xmas etymology“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.



One plus one makes three

two color matchbooks

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).

two-color Hungarian matchbook coverFour 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 is often mistaken for an f

seersucker with long s's look like "feerfucker"

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.

Optima’s monumental elegance

Herman Zapf's Optima typeface used in the Vietnam Memorial in Washington

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.

Hermann Zapf’s Optima, a humanist face from Monotype

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.

Lovely, short letterpress documentary

Firefly Press, Sommerville, Massachusetts

“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.

Always optimize images for your website

Always optimize website images

Image files should not go straight from camera to website
Large image files take up space and increase load time. Fast-loading websites require small image file sizes.

Free optimizers:
There are free image optimizers online. We were able to reduce the image (above) to about half the size of the Facebook-optimized image. Try a few of these online tools and bookmark an optimizer that you like. Your goal is sharp-looking images and a small file size.

Best way to optimize:
Use Photoshop “save for web.” Also Gimp, Corel or any other image-editing program.

Website image best practices (it’s not all about size):
A few basic rules for website images:

  • Optimize images—small images load faster
  • Use jpgs for photos and pngs for flat images (logos, type, vectors)
  • Name image files meaningfully: “farmers-market.jpg” not “P103753.jpg”
  • Use “alt text” to describe image (e.g. “vegetables at farmers’ market”) for ADA compliance and search rankings


The exclamation point —“a sign of failure”

Achtung sign with exclamation point

The 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.

Jeb Bush 2016 with exclamationJeb Bush’s infamous exclamation point campaign logo (see designer David Carson’s comments) contrasted unflatteringly with Donald Trump’s claims in the 2016 presidential primaries that Bush was “a very low-energy kind of guy.”

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

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, 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.

Raster (or Bitmap) vs Vector images


Raster (or bitmap) images are fixed-resolution images, made of a grid of pixels. If enlarged they will be blurry and pixelated, with a “stair-stepped” edge.
Common raster file formats are jpg, gif, tiff, bmp and png.

Vector images can be enlarged to any size with no loss of resolution.
Vector images are created by a series of points that are joined using a mathematical formula that determines the vector between points.
A purely vector file format would be svg (scalable vector graphic). Adobe Illustrator files are typically vector, but Illustrator supports placed raster images, just as Adobe Photoshop files now support vector layers. Pdf and eps files also support both vector and raster images, so asking for an Illustrator, pdf or eps file does not guarantee that you’ll end up with vectors. If you need vectors, ask for a vector file. It may be delivered as an eps, pdf, svg or ai file.


Your logo should be in a vector format so that it can be reproduced at any size. Ask your designer for a vector pdf with type converted to paths to guarantee excellent reproduction at any size.


Is yellow pages advertising still worth it?

Think of what you could do in online ads with what you have budgeted for yellow pages

If you’re still spending money in the various yellow pages, consider this:

  • Expense: How much could you do online with what you spend on yellow pages?
  • Diminishing usage: Every year, a yet larger percentage of your potential customers find phone numbers online.
  • Multiple phone books: Competing books each offer only their fraction of the diminishing market.
  • Lack of flexibility: Yellow pages contracts are signed for an entire year, far in advance of publication.

Online advertising offers control and flexibility. With search engine advertising, you control your message and reach. With Google Adwords you can turn up the amount you pay per click when business is slow, and lower it or turn it off when you are busy. Bing is used for a much smaller percentage of searches, but Bing Ads is another economical way to advertise online.