Virgule versus solidus

virgule vs. 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.


Ligatures: marriages of suitable characters


Adobe Minion pro partial set of ligaturesAdobe Minion Pro offers a large assortment of ligatures.

The ampersand is the best-known ligature, but there are other common conjoined letters that are less visible. Beyond the five standard Roman ligatures, many type families offer more extensive sets of connected characters. Open Type now makes the use of ligatures effortless, and many fonts offer an array of ligatures. In many Roman typefaces, 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).


Latin is all Greek to me

Lorem Ipsum is used for greeking text

When designs are required before content is ready “greeking” is a method of filling in space where the text will go. It can be accomplished by simply sketching horizontal lines with a pencil, or, with the advent of design software, by dropping Latin into text columns. 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 is to not distract decision makers with questions of text messaging. These rough layouts can also help copywriters see how much text might be appropriate.

Lorem Ipsum is a somewhat scrambled excerpt from de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum, written by Cicero in 45 BCE. Cicero was popular reading throughout the late middle ages when literacy was spreading, and into the Enlightenment when all educated Europeans still read Latin, but by the time Lorem Ipsum was put together, Latin was understood by few, so it was the perfect placeholder text to show foundry type to printers or to dummy-up an advertisement.

You can generate Lorem Ipsum text online for your next project.



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.



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?

question marks from many typefaces

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, not bold face

Italics are the elegant way to emphasize text. Bold faces are for headlines, posters or logos. Bold type breaks up the flow and degrades the readability of text just as words or phrases in all caps are like blotches in a column of type. Type often comes in extended families of varying weights, 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 Whatever...

“Ye” was pronounced “the.”
“Ye” is a 16th century substitution of a “y” for an Old English character known as the thorn (“þ”), originally a Germanic rune that represented the interdental th sound. In late 15th century, early English printers, whose types were still founded on the continent, did not have the þ so they substituted the y, which read enough like a  þ when set in type. It dropped from usage as “th” gained favor, 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

Hamilton New York job case, from the 1923 American Type Founders catalog
From the equipment section of the 1923 American Type Founders Specimen Book and Catalogue

To be “out of sorts” derives from printers’ jargon—meaning to run out of needed letters in the hand-setting of type.

“I operated a Linotype in the late 1970s, setting hot lead slugs of type. My coworker, Harry, would set up the Heidelberg windmill presses, 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 hand. 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 countertop to be replaced into the job cases, Harry had no trouble distinguishing sorts. The p, d, b, and q all looked the same to me, but they didn’t slow Harry in the least.”
—Joel Mielke


Virgulilla: doubly diminutive

Bottle of vino Virgulilla, tilde, rasgoVirgulilla, which is Spanish for something like ‘an accent or mark.’ Usually it refers to what in English we call the tilde (which probably also derives from the Spanish*), but can also mean any diacritical mark resembling a comma, line or dash. The 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, medieval 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.

Tilde itself has a link to diminution: the Spanish verb tildar means ‘to add tildes where needed,’ but it also means ‘to diminish or denigrate’ when applied to a person.

*Según el Real Academia Española: “tilde: virgulilla o rasgo que se pone sobre algunas abreviaturas…”