Archives for category: Typesetting

Where does the word dingbat come from? Could it be a mysterious Australian mammal, a cross between a dingo and a wombat? Guess not. It does sound a bit Germanic, with that Ding an sich up front, but the Oxford English Dictionary refuses to commit its corporate self on etymology, stating under that heading “Origin uncertain”. Less rigorous that the Oxford Dictionary editors, I am always ready to imagine a German-speaking USA immigrant influence in the formation of words like this. Dingbat seems, in any of its meanings, to date from the mid-nineteenth century, so such an origin could be possible. One of the meanings listed by the OED includes reference to “thingummy”, a word I was charmed to find in such a formal context. This school playground slang word probably sums up the whole thing. But the earliest reference in their entry on thingummy surprisingly dates to 1737. (Given that meaning, it is far from amazing that another euphemistic usage of dingbat is “penis”.)

Nevertheless, what dingbats mean to me is a font of typographical symbols. As the OED puts it, a dingbat is “A typographical device other than a letter or numeral (such as an asterisk or rule), used to signal divisions in text, to replace letters in a euphemistically presented vulgar word, or for ornamentation. Also in plural: a font or typeface consisting of these.” This meaning didn’t come into existence until the very end of the nineteenth century. I wonder what they were called before that — thingummy-jigs? The usage of dingbats “to replace letters in a euphemistically presented vulgar word” takes us straight to grawlix, and must surely now be “obsolete”, as we no longer feel much need to disguise “vulgar words”.

Here are a couple of dingbat collections from Mergenthaler LinoType:

Dingbats live in the same world as Type ornaments. Type ornaments are little drawings which you know you’ll need again and again, so having made them in metal pieces, you store them for the next occasion on which they’ll be called for. Dingbats are little ornaments which you’ll need again, and again, and again, indeed so often that it makes sense to incorporate them into your system just like the letters a, b, c and so on. So dingbats are type ornaments that recur so frequently that they end up being typeset rather than inserted as a block or cut.

This is a first — for me anyway.

The Economist hyphenates a three-letter word in their issue of 18 December: see the end of the third line. Hart’s Rules, the Oxford Bible of all composition apprentices, doesn’t actually forbid you to take over a single letter — because nobody would dream of doing such a thing. Judith Butcher’s Copy-editing, the Cambridge style bible, tells us that American comps generally follow the hyphenation shown in Webster’s Dictionaries (where of course splitting “the” after the “h” isn’t proposed). The Chicago Manual of Style implies disapproval by telling us we shouldn’t carry over two characters to the next line. It’s one of those things you just don’t do — everyone knows it, except for carelessly programmed computer systems.

The reason you break words is to keep the spacing on every line more or less even. The shorter the measure (line length) the harder this becomes, so word division and spacing tolerances in newspapers can be more daring than in book work. In this case word spacing on that third line is perhaps as tight as reasonable, while on the line below it’s pretty loose. Probably taking over the “th” to the fourth line would have loosened up line three, but not that much more than line four as it stands. But anyway, just look at the “the” at the end of the second line, and I think you’ll agree that pulling back that “e” could have been done at the expense of a tiny bit of space before the “w”following the comma. It’s not that they didn’t want to have to break “Zimbabwe” a couple of lines later — they are perfectly content to do so at the bottom of the paragraph. Any number of simple editorial changes would also have cured the trouble — they just had to look for opportunity. For instance, instead of “In 2019 he became” write “In 2019 he was”, or get rid of “a prestigious gong”* — nothing but a gain in my book — and so on and so on.

Clearly they forgot to tell their software developer that it wasn’t allowed to break such short words, and then didn’t notice the problem in proof reading.

See also Word-breaks.


* Antiquity is an accessible scholarly journal of archaeology, founded in 1927 by O. G. S. Crawford. In my day it was run by Glyn Daniel, and was an exemplification of the common-sensical Cambridge approach to archaeology. Since 1963 the journal has been owned by a charitable trust. It is now published by Cambridge University Press. (I did ask, but Professor Daniel would never play ball.) “The Antiquity Prize was created in 1994 by Editor Christopher Chippindale and the Antiquity Editorial Board in recognition of the fact that research funding was becoming increasingly competitive, the time to write difficult to find, and really good writing is ‘as rare and precious as ever’. They created the prize to honour and support the author(s) of the best contribution to each volume of Antiquity.” Whether any “gong” changes hands or not is not clear.

Almost looks like his hat’s made of type metal

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg was born in Mainz some time between 1394 and 1404. In the 1890s the city of Mainz declared his official birthdate to be 24 June, 1400.

He didn’t invent printing. He didn’t invent the printing press. The closest thing to an invention that Johannes Gutenberg made was movable metal type: but even that had precedent in Asian printing, about which Gutenberg was however presumably ignorant. His father was a goldsmith and coin maker, and there are parallels between metal working and hot metal printing which seem to have worked on the mind of the youth. Obviously metal working led to a facility with the use of metals, including engraving copper plates. Casting coins and medals in moulds, and obviously the techniques involved in cutting the moulds themselves were essential skills in hot metal type manufacture. Presses were already known by then, used for printing wood blocks, but mainly evolved from wooden wine presses.

What Gutenberg really was was a businessman who saw an opportunity to develop some pre-existing technologies, and pushed hard, putting his money (and others’) where his mouth was. He seems to have been quite willing to take a flutter: one instance is the abortive pilgrimage to Aachen on 1439. Gutenberg manufactured thousands of little mirrors which were advertised as having the power to gather in divine rays. These were to be sold to souvenir-happy pilgrims. His inventory became useless when the plague (or maybe it was floods) caused to cancellation of Aachen’s ceremonies.

Between 1448 and 1450 Gutenberg established a printing operation in Mainz. Investors included Arnold Geldhus, his brother-in-law, as well as Johann Fust and his son-in-law, Peter Schöffer. Fust invested 800 gulden to get the operation going, and then put in a further 800 gulden to fund the printing of the Bible which started in 1452. Prior to the Bible project they were printing indulgences and Latin grammars. The first work surviving from the press is a German poem.

The BBC programme, The Forum, gives a straightforward introduction to Gutenberg’s entrepreneurial initiative. This programme dates from November 2020, and breaks in the middle for a news update, which, rather eerily, turns out to be the news from back then (2020, not 1452).

Manicule just means little hand in Latin. And it is just a little hand. The pointing forefinger ☛ (index* in Latin) was originally used as a way to annotate your book to point out bits you had thought important — “Just look at this!”

Here’s a little red one in the right hand margin:

Keith Houston’s Shady Characters shows and tells

A hyper-dextrous manuscript manicule. He even seems to be using his pinkie to scratch his wrist.

Whether scribes writing out old manuscripts copied the manicules added by readers because they understood their job as to follow the copy text out of the window, or whether in some cases they may have added them themselves as a sort of rough and ready textual commentary is impossible to know, but when we came to printing, manicules were well-established, and were carefully carried over into the world of hot-metal typesetting. The aim of the earliest printers was to make their wares as close to indistinguishable from there prestigious manuscript versions as the could. Until the eighteenth century manicules were very common in book work. I suspect their popularity waned as the craft turned more and more into a business. Manicules usually need to be set out in the margin, which means surrounding them with non-printing spaces, as well as requiring a bit more paper. Today they are vanishingly rare, though you can (inevitably) buy fonts which include manicules pointing in all directions.

Just look at all those shiny spaces. Someone has to fit them all.

I Love Typography has an illustrated piece outlining the history of the manicule’s early use in print.


* The OED tells us, under its entry on Index “1727 W. Mather Young Man’s Compan. (ed. 13) 38   Index is a Note like a Hand, with the Forefinger pointing out at something that is remarkable, thus ☛.” So manicule does tie in with indexing — both aids to navigation.

It’s all a lot more straightforward getting a book ready for the printer than it used to be in the days of analog working. But computers are unforgiving — give them the wrong instruction and they’ll faithfully execute the flawed plan. No more good old compositor Bill glancing at it and seeing there’s something wrong which he can rectify quite simply, at worst by a phone call.

Printing Impressions has an informative article on the commonest errors in files submitted for printing. In order to make out that everything is ship-shape and Bristol fashion the printer will run a test on the files submitted by the publisher. This test is referred to as pre-flighting.

The most frequent pre-flight problems discovered in customer-supplied PDFs are

  • The resolution of images is too low
  • Use of incorrect or unwanted color spaces
  • Bleed is missing
  • Fonts are not embedded in the PDF
  • There are problems with transparency
  • The PDF file contains an incorrect number of spot colors
  • There is an issue with overprint
  • Total ink coverage is too high
  • Incorrect ICC profiles are used
  • The dimensions of the PDF do not match the requested size
  • There are issues with flattened transparency

So take care. Check-lists are always a good idea.

Here a comp (compositor) is making up one of the sports pages from the 10 September 1942 issue of The New York Times. It looks like he’s copy-fitting a new group of half lines which have been reset (tighter) to fit the space available. Could be the baseball scores. Note that he’s working upside down. The type reads backwards too of course, so that umpire at the top is being viewed from the first base side of home plate. The Yankees, if that’s who it is, were in Baltimore on the 9th — this may be one of the 9 unanswered runs they failed to prevent.

The composing room was the hinge on which the whole enterprise turned. Here the words, having been keyed and set on the Linotypes in the keyboarding department, were turned into pages of type, ready to go for stereo-making. Clearly they had to be told about changes in house style so they could catch errors, and here the Composing Room Foreman has stuck recent (nicely typeset) changes in a prominent location.

These photos, along with many other fascinating images, come from the Library of Congress via a post from Mashable. Marjory Collins made the photographs for The Office of War Information. The New York Times at that time was still located at One Times Square with an annex on 43rd Street. See College Point presses for their new printing plant.

For a video on the Times‘ change-over to film setting from Linotype, see The Times goes cold.

Thanks to Nathan Barr for the link to Mashable‘s photos.

As an illustration of heavy jargon, David Crotty send us this video via The Scholarly Kitchen.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

A “drawn reciprocation dingle arm to reduce sinusoidal deplenaration” sounds like something we couldn’t live without. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the Retro Encabulator is a mildly famous fictitious machine whose technobabble description is some kind of engineering in-joke. The technobabble on show in this video should suffice for a lifetime.

Jargon however is widespread, and as Mr Crotty says, is actually rather important in allowing experts in a field to communicate efficiently with one another. “A research paper must assume some level of prior knowledge, otherwise, for example, a molecular biologist would have to start each paper with an explanation of the structure of DNA and turn each research report into a textbook.”

We are far from free of jargon in the book business, and a part of the raison d’être of this blog is the recording and explication of our specialized lingo. To take just one example, when we talk about dimensions to a typesetter we talk in picas and points (a pica is just a word for 12 points) — the fact that someone overhearing can’t figure out what we’re on about doesn’t matter. 12/15 x 18, or “Twelve point type with three point leading on an eighteen pica measure” may not mean much to the reader, but to a publisher it immediately suggests a desperate attempt to bulk out the book. We could of course talk in millimeters, in inches, in didots (as the Europeans tend to) but we talk points, and probably always will. No confusion or complexity is introduced by the fact that a point was traditionally an imprecise quantity which we all agreed was approximately 1/72 of an inch, so that a pica is about 1/6″, neither of them particularly simple fractions of an inch. (Since the arrival of computerization these more precision-minded workers have decreed that the point shall be considered to be exactly 1/72″, and so it now is.) But of course when you talk points, inches never enter your mind. On the other hand as soon as you move the job on to the printer, inches are the very units you’ll be using. If you direct the printer to position the type page six picas from the top trim you are asking for trouble. They need to be told one inch. Nobody finds this at all odd. And as jargon goes, nor is it.

I often find myself suppressing the urge to use the word font when talking about typefaces. A typeface is a design for type — Times Roman is a typeface, as is Helvetica Neue, the typeface used here I believe. Properly speaking a font is all the Times Roman or Helevetica Neue characters needed for say 14 point setting. See Font for a clearer definition.

Here’s a sensible set of advice about text design from The Design Team. Under the heading The Type Snob they do actually include the advice to give up on that trivial vocabulary distinction. Well, I’ll try. 

It may not be immediately obvious to the outsider, but the first step the book designer needs to take is to decide what typeface (oops, font) will be used for the text. The text comprises the majority of the words in the book, so it’s appropriately basic. If you get wedded to a display face, you’ll probably struggle to get to a matching text font. Leave the fancy stuff for later. So how does the designer decide the text will be set in Times Roman or in Helvetica Neue? (In the case of this blog the decision comes as part and parcel with the layout template provided by WordPress.)

In the olden, hot-metal days the requirement that the printer you were going to use actually had the typeface you wanted was clearly fundamental. In a hot metal world you might find that Caslon was available at printer X only in 10, 12, and 18 point sizes for Roman and Italic, 10 and 12 for Bold, 10, 14, and 18pt for Bold Italic. If the book was going to have lots of footnotes, you’d need maybe an 8 point size — so either you changed printer or more likely changed typeface. This constraint continued into film setting days. Nowadays this is no longer an issue as the fonts travel in the computer files along with the text.

So back then there was much consulting of printers’ type books. The bigger printers would have many typefaces, so choice was not lacking. Certain faces were considered appropriate for certain subject matters — we might use Modern for science because the printer had an unrivaled array of mathematical sorts. Garamond, Bembo and such old style faces were considered appropriate for literary topics. We often inclined to Ehrhardt as it could squeeze a lot of text onto a page. Unless there’s a compelling reason you should avoid setting the text of a book in any sans serif face — the presence of a small serif improves readability, and sans should be reserved for headings (if you have to), signage and adverts. A further problem with most sans faces is the confusion potential between Cap “eye”, the number 1 and lower case “ell”. Under all circumstances fancy fonts like Comic Sans should be shunned.

The aim of good typography is that it should be invisible, operating at a subconscious level. You don’t want the reader stopping and exclaiming “What a beautiful W” or, worse, the opposite. The only communication which should be going on is between author and reader. Designers are not part of the conversation: they should aim to be just the air through which the sound waves travel..

London Remembers added this blue plaque* to their collection of lost memorials as it had been left off the front of 22-23 Chiswell Street after the redesign of the entranceway. (Link via a tweet from Typographica.) The Caslon Letter Foundry had operated there from 1734 till 1936. Turns out that a couple of months later the plaque reappeared — so pilgrimages can resume. Spitalfields Life has an article about the foundry with a large gallery of photos. There’s a link there to a piece about Caslon which also has lots of illustrations.

William Caslon is, of course, remembered as the designer of the eponymous typeface.He needs however to be referred to as William I, as he came out of Halesowen to found a type founding dynasty in London. He started out as an apprentice with the Worshipful Company of Loriners in 1706. Loriners, often lorimers, make the metal parts for horse bridles. Caslon allegedly focussed on engraving metal pieces, especially gun locks, a task which also seems to have fallen to the loriner. Around 1720 the talented young man was set up as a type founder by John Watts, William Bower, and A. N. Other. Good timing. In 1722 Caslon was commissioned by SPCK (the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, the third oldest English publisher after CUP and OUP) to cut an Arabic typeface. SPCK liked it, but even more did people like the Roman letter used at the bottom of the specimen sheet to identify the type founder. Printer Samuel Palmer got Caslon to cut an entire Roman alphabet, and so successful did Caslon’s Pica Roman become that very quickly England was transformed from an importer of type into an exporter. The face gained a world-wide following: The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were both set in Caslon type.

Caslon came to be the “British” typeface. It’s an old-style face rather than transitional like the almost contemporary Baskerville (well, fifty years later actually), and it took off from older Dutch designs, tidying them up and generating a feeling of straightforward solidity and geometrical balance. In weird slap-in-the-face mode the first biography of James Baskerville was printed at Cambridge University Press in 1907 using Caslon’s type. And this despite the fact that Baskerville’s original punches and matrices were owned by CUP. Into the nineteenth century Caslon enjoyed its continuing popularity, but gradually fell out of favor in time to be resuscitated in the twentieth century type renaissance in Britain.

Here’s a type specimen which includes down the right hand side Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic, Gothic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Samaritan and Coptic, and at the bottom, Saxon. Keep clicking on it if you want to get into it.


*These blue plaques are quite widespread across London — there are apparently more than 950 of them. They usually note the fact that famous person X lived here. The scheme started in 1866 and is now administered by English Heritage.

As LitHub tells us in a piece entitled The Punctuation Marks Loved (and Hated) by Famous Writers, “Parul Seghal once argued that style ‘is 90 percent punctuation’.” 

This image, from Punctuation in novels by Adam J. Calhoun, is certainly interesting, but I’m wondering in what its interest resides. Does it tells us anything very meaningful? Clearly there’s a stark difference. But is the difference between Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner 90% explicable by this picture? Add a bit more punctuational variety and you too can win a Nobel Prize?

I cannot get past the idea that this sort of literary analysis is a bit of a cop out. Literary critic: Are you finding reading the book and thinking about it too laborious? OK, just focus on the details and give us a study of how often the author uses the definite article as compared with the indefinite; or analyse why it is that the sixth most frequently used word in this novel is this and not that; or measure the ratio of semicolons to colons; or study how the typeface works on this shade of paper as against the creamier sheet used in the first printing.

Or maybe Ms Seghal is right, in which case I’m missing a lot. While reading a book do you really make a subtle distinction between the pause you mentally leave when encountering a comma, a semicolon, a dash, a period — full stop as we call in in Britain which does imply there should be a whopping pause at the end of each sentence? I’m not even sure I pause when we switch from one paragraph to another. Maybe we are subconsciously taking this stuff on board, but unless the punctuation becomes odd and thus intrusive, I suspect it’s got little to do with style.

The “personality” of punctuation marks must be an entirely subjective thing. F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke”. In an online world, at least, I rather regard it as indicating that you think you’ve made a joke, and hope that others won’t misread you as being serious. Much material on punctuation marks and their usage may be found at Shady Characters.

I discover I have referred to Mr Calhoun’s article before. Sorry for the duplication.