Virgulilla, 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…”
Bernard “Hap” Kliban (1935–1990) offered Barf Bold, a Decorative Typeface in one of his hilarious cartoon collections in the early ’80s. Kliban created the cartoon genre that consisted of a single panel with a droll, third person narration (e.g., “Houdini escaping from New Jersey”), a style which Gary Larson of “The Far Side” later became famous for.
Kliban’s correct use of the term “decorative typeface” (he could have also used “display face”) is especially notable now that most people use the term “font” broadly to mean a printed face, a typographic family, a specific typeface, or (correctly) the licensed software that allows us to reproduce type on our computers.
Animation created by Jovan Cormac for Wikimedia Commons
Al Jazeera has one of the most recognizable logos in the world. The plucky network began broadcasting in 1996 and has survived US bombings of their bureaus in both Kabul and Baghdad. President George W. Bush even considered bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar, yet Al Jazeera has become a trusted provider of broadcast news worldwide.
The distinctive logo consists of a teardrop-shaped glyph with the words Al Jazeera below in Arabic or English. What non-Arabic speakers might not realize is that the glyph itself also spells out “the Island,” al Jazeera, in Arabic script. It was quickly designed by a Qatari man who entered it in a design contest he heard about on the radio, and it was selected by the Emir of Qatar.
By the way, the al in Al Jazeera is a definite article, which is the source of so many “al” words in Spanish (e.g., alcalde, albóndiga, almohada). Some of these Iberian Arabic words are now common in English and other European languages — almirante (admiral), albacora (albacore), alfalfa, alcohól, albaricoque (apricot), alcachofa (artichoke) algoritmo (algorithm).
The language quarterly Verbatim once published a mnemonic, in the form of a poem, to help us differentiate between these similar-sounding, but not-to-be-confused words.
Primer by David Galef, Oxford, Mississippi
The epigram’s a pithy saying, Full of paradox and wit.
The epithet’s a brief description. A clever name that scores a hit.
The epigraph’s a type of preface, Like the lead-in to a writ.
The epitaph is seen on tombstones, Related to who’s under it.
All four are commonly confused, But in each usage, three don’t fit.
From the documentary “Helvetica,” by Gary Hustwit, ©2007 Swiss Dots Ltd.
Until the late mid 1980s, “font” was a word that I never heard outside of the printing trades. When desktop computing made multiple typefaces available to the general public, “font” entered the vernacular. It now refers to both the typeface—the design and look of a typeface—and to the software file that generates it.
Traditionally, a font was a set of foundry type in a single point size of a typeface (e.g., Helvetica is a typeface, and 48 point Helvetica Bold is a font). Few now make the distinction. Stephen Coles has written, “When you talk about how much you like a tune, you don’t say: ‘That’s a great MP3,’ you say, ‘That’s a great song.’ The MP3 is the delivery mechanism, not the creative work, just as in type a font is the delivery mechanism and a typeface is the creative work.”
“Font” versus “Typeface”:
“I love the typeface Goudy Old Style.”
“I’m going to install the fonts for the Goudy Old Style family.”
The English use of font as “a casting of metal type” dates back to the late 17th century. It derives from the French fonte “a casting,” from fondre to “melt” or to “cast.” This makes “font” a cognate of “foundry,” from the French fonderei, the industrial site where metal type was designed and cast. Digital type is still created and distributed by foundries, though they may simply be an office in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Sudtipos) or Bandung, Indonesia (Decade Type Foundry).
American Type Founders was born of a merger of 23 type foundries in 1892. In the early 1920s, American Type Founders had come to dominate the huge foundry type market in the United States. They budgeted a whopping $300,000 (millions in today’s dollars) to produce 60,00 copies of their 1923 Specimen Book. This immense, 1100-page catalog was distributed across North America. Used in print shops, copies were referenced for decades by printers with inky fingers, so clean copies are hard to find, but you can view the entire catalog here.
ATF finally succumbed, in 1993, to the pressures of “cold type.” Luckily for letterpress shops, which have had a resurgence in popularity in the digital age, Mackenzie & Harris Type Foundry, in San Francisco, still produces metal type. There’s also eBay, for foundry type.
The Specimen Book and Catalogue 1923 is available occasionally from booksellers for hundreds of dollars, but the online version provides a satisfying browsing experience.