Why is a piece of art in a book referred to as a figure?

It’s been that for long enough. The Oxford English Dictionary defines figure as “a delineation illustrating the text of a book”, and gives as their earliest example Chaucer in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (c. 1400) “For the more decl[a]racioun, lo here the figure.” The book is still available, so, lo, there too the figure.

The word is well established, and the OED doesn’t bother to show any examples later than 1885. Recent enough you may say, but not long into the life of photography, which is what got me started on all this. I was reading an Oxford University Press book, George Cotkin’s Dive Deeper, and was struck by the fact that all the art is labeled as Figure this that and the other regardless of whether it is a photo or a line drawing. This actually seems an absolutely normal state of affairs, but why should I think that a figure should only be a piece of line art?

I fear the answer is that I’m hopelessly old-fashioned, something I’m a bit ashamed to have to admit. In the old letterpress days, when photographs tended to be printed on separate sections of coated paper, they were referred to as Plates, and got their own numbering sequence. The other bits of artwork, which were printed on the text paper were labeled Fig. 1, Fig. 2 etc. Once offset presses enabled publishers to print halftones on text paper, they could be incorporated into the same Figure sequence. Indeed Judith Butcher tells us in Copy-editing, Third edition (first published in 1975, but in use internally for years before that) “Text halftones are usually included in the figure numbering. Halftones printed on different paper are more likely to be numbered in a separate sequence, because of the expense of inserting them at the right place in the sequence when the book is bound.”*

Still, figure remains an odd word for what might be called an illustration, a drawing, a diagram, a picture even — though perhaps no odder than may of the words we easily utter. The word ultimately derives from the Latin figura, which apparently (mysteriously?) was a medieval rendering of σχῆμα (from which we get schema, or schematic which is a word occasionally to be found as an alternative to figure in scientific publication).

Why is an illustration in a book referred to as art for that matter? This seems simpler I think. The manuscript would arrive at the printers as two stacks: pages of text, and a pile of drawings which had to go to a draftsman to be turned into reproduction quality “artwork”. So to refer to illustrations in a book as art, is to focus on their original production method.

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* This reference to inserting plates at their text reference brings up another aspect of book manufacture. If you have a photo printed up and have to tip it in facing its text reference (which is obviously the most convenient location for the reader) you have to interrupt the binding process to flip through the book to find the page in question, open it up and do your tip-in. If there’s only one halftone plate, for example a frontspiece, this extra cost was often tolerated, but if there were multiple plates, the cost quickly became exorbitant. Gathering all the halftones together in one section doesn’t really inconvenience the reader all that much as it’s pretty obvious where the plate section is.