Old style text figures (or lower case, non-lining numerals) have made a comeback in graphic design in recent years. Typesetters use old style figures mainly in book publishing because they are lower case and blend almost invisibly into text, but graphic designers have been largely ignorant of old style figures owing, in part, to the lack of affordable extended type families in the early years of desktop design. For decades now, most numerals in text have been “lining” or “modern” figures—essentially all caps.
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, 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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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’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.”
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.”
“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.”
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, 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.
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 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.
“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: Kanban, Mandarin, Rickshaw, Wonton, et al. But also available are cliché representations of Irish, Greek, Arab, Tropical Hispanic, Slavic, 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: hippies, trekkies, scrapbookers, programmer/geeks, new-agers, believers in unicorns, headbangers, fratboys, needlepointers, taggers, restroom taggers, renaissance fairgoers, secret agents, Klingons and cowboys all have their typographic parodies.
And since we all use the Roman alphabet, it would be redundant to stereotype ancient Latin, right? Guess again.