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.



The long s is often mistaken for an f

seersucker with long s's look like "feerfucker"

The long s (∫) has its roots in Roman cursive and was common in print in Europe from the 15th through the 18th centuries. It still appears in the German Eszett (ß), which is an ss ligature (a connected long s and short s) that was common in European printing before the19th century. Language writer, Ben Zimmer, was once looking for the earliest references to the fabric “seersucker” and he discovered that his searches were hobbled by the problem of optical character recognition mistaking the long “s” for a “f” in old 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. Although they varied a bit from one language to the next, there were rules on where the “∫” was placed in text. Confusing the “∫” with the “f” was apparently not  a problem in the three hundred years in which the long “s” was in common printed 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.

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.

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. As time went on, the abbreviation was written with the S on top of the P. 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.