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 (mostly in Holland), 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…”



Indecorous display

b-kliban-barf-bold-a-decorative-typeface©1982 B. Kliban — Notice that he didn’t use the current term “font”

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.


Deciphering Al Jazeera’s logo

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).


Epigram, epithet, epigraph, epitaph…

epitaph for Mel BlancThe 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.


‘Font’ versus ‘typeface’ (there’s a difference)

Helvetica, a film by Gary Hustwit
From the documentary “Helvetica,” by Gary Hustwit, ©2007 Swiss Dots Ltd.

Until the late  mid 1980s, ‘font’ was a word that one 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 appearance—and to the software file that generates it.

Traditionally, a font was a set of foundry type in a single point siz (e.g., Helvetica is a typeface, and 48 point Helvetica Bold is a font). Few now make the distinction. Stephen Coles wrote, “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”:
Typeface: “I love the Goudy Old Style.”
Font: “I’m going to install Caslon.”

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).