Archives for category: Typesetting

The word pixel is a contraction of “picture element”. Apparently it replaced the earlier “pel”, perhaps understandably. It describes the way a picture is rendered on your computer screen — with enough magnification you’d see the dots — without it you’re looking at a picture made up of lots of tiny invisible separate bits. I always think of pixels as the work of pixies who have magically brought me this picture over the ether. The system is analogous to, but different from, the halftone dot process we use in printing to achieve the same effect.

The size of each dot is defined by the resolution setting of your screen. Whatis will give you the details. Aeon‘s story, (sent by Jeremy Mynott) gives you the science behind pixels, and tells us that pixels are really just a point with no dimension: not a dot, not a little box, just a location defined by computer code. What we see are in fact pixel spreaders in action, perhaps a distinction which the non-specialist can disregard though!

However tempting the analogies, we have to keep in mind that computer (and LED television) screens and halftone screens are different. Computer screens use additive color while printing on paper uses subtractive color: a computer screen with no colors will be black: a sheet of paper with no color is white. (Knowledge of this distinction, I always feel, should help in remembering which is subtractive and which additive, but I can’t say that I find that it really does.) Computer screens form their pixels from RGB colors (red, green, blue), while printed color images employ dots of CMYK, (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) to render the scene. In a halftone CMYK image each dot is just one of the four colors: their combination creates the illusion of a colored original. On the computer screen each pixel contains a defined amount of red, green and blue, creating the color in itself, and with its neighbor providing the shading and color variation in the image.

The dots on a printed page should not be referred to as pixels, nor now we are more familiar with them do we spend as much time worrying about them as we used to. Dots per inch (DPI) is a term we used to bandy about. Dots per inch sounds like it’s telling you something. The knowledge never seemed to do us much good though when it came to looking at typesetting output. It’s really just a measure of the fineness of the screen* on a halftone.


* At the most basic level the word screen is being used differently when we talk about computers and televisions as opposed to books or other printed images. A screen used to create a halftone for printing can be thought of as something like a metal sieve, or the wire mesh screens you have on your windows to keep out bugs. Hold this up in front of a picture and take a photograph through it and it’ll appear as a series of little separate dots. Using color filters you can get one for only yellow bits, one for only red, one for only blue, and one for black. Slightly rotating each one you can create the illusion of a color picture.

I was wondering recently about the rule governing the use of the long s, because early printers didn’t always use ſ: the instance I was looking at was the running head in an early printing of Richardson’s Clarissa, the one with annotations by Lady Bradshaigh.* There our heroine is referred to as Miſs Clariſſa Harlowe, the Miss in italic, the rest in Roman. How come she gets two ſs in one case but not in the other?

Grammarly has a History of the Long S, which tells us that the long s (like an italic f without the cross bar — though in the Roman form it gets a sort of half bar) goes back to everyday Roman cursive writing. After a while under normal medieval usage it became the way to write lower case s. “If you’re wondering what the s we know and use today was doing during that time, don’t worry, it was there. It’s just that it was used as the uppercase S, mostly, up until the eleventh or twelfth century. Around that time, the long s started to be used when the letter appeared at the beginning or in the middle of a word, and by the fifteenth century, this practice seemed to become established. So the word ‘sound’ would have been written as ‘ſound,’ and the word ‘rest’ would have been written as ‘reſt.’ The short s (also known as the round s) was used at the end of a word, or after a long s which appeared in the middle of a word. That’s why the word ‘processes’ would have been written like this: ‘proceſses’.” That rule, while nicely straightforward, doesn’t unfortunately answer my Clariſſa case. Does that make it a typo, or was the rule just not fully settled down by 1748? Maybe neither: Wikipedia suggests that the “rule” was that one or both esses could be long, or not. Seems almost like no rule. It probably boils down to differences in house styles.  Oddly, where a word was hyphenated after an ess, ſ was apparently required.

No doubt all American readers are aware that in The Bill of Rights Congress is referred to as Congreſs. Perhaps the first encounter we have with a long ſ may cause us to pause and think, but thereafter we smoothly read these things as esses and pass on unconsciously. (See the lines following the running head in the picture of Richardson’s printing of Clarissa, above. Yes, Samuel Richardson was a printer. Should we imagine the book’s being so long as a dodge to keep the presses running?) In any case it all began to go away late in the eighteenth century when they stopped designing an ſ for modern typefaces. If it’s ever used nowadays, it’s done in order to create an antique atmosphere.

See also Long S, in which I show an example of my personal foray into long ess territory. Errata shows a French combo longs/round s character just like the German esszett, ß.


* Lady Bradshaigh wrote many letters to Richardson, initially proposing that virtue should be rewarded and Miss Harlowe should not be forced to die, and continuing with discussions about the plotting of The History of Sir Charles Grandison, Richardson’s last novel. As these books were initially published in parts, there was lots of room for a persuasive reader to affect the outcome of things. Richardson valued Lady Bradshaigh’s comments: their correspondence (and that with her sister Lady Echlin) is contained in the 1200 pp. three-volume Cambridge University Press publication, The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson with Lady Bradshaigh and Lady Echlin, 2016. A review by Clare Bucknell may be found at The London Review of Books.

The note at the end of this subject index from this 1690 medical volume, Les remèdes choisis de l’herboriste d’Attigna by Antoine Golletti doesn’t waste time in apologies.

Quelques fautes” “Some errors” they tell us “have happened during printing, which is not at all unusual, but as they aren’t very important, we have thought that a reader, however little wit he might possess, would not be bothered by them, which reasonably dispenses with the need for us to indicate them here.”

This erratum notice comes from a tweet by Bruce McKittrick Rare Books. The book was printed in Lyons, chez Mathieu Desmares, in the rue des quatre chapeaux, at the sign of the golden anchor. Well done Mr Desmares — treat ’em rough.

Interesting to see that what we think of as the German sz, ß, was used in France to indicate the combination long s + short s. See the start of the second last line. Here’s a detail which gets rid of the red library stamp.

See also Erratum slips.

Does the discovery of a “Wicked Bible” in New Zealand justify a post? The Guardian report describes the situation.

The so-called “Wicked Bible” was printed in 1631 and contains everyone’s favorite Biblical typo: the omission of “not” in the seventh commandment. The printers, Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, were summoned by King Charles I and admonished for sloppy workmanship. Their printing licence was rescinded, and they were fined £300, though the fine was never paid. One thousand copies had been printed, but most of them were destroyed, leaving only about twenty survivors. Wikipedia lists the location of most of these. The existence of a second error, leading to Deuteronomy V,24 reading “Behold, the Lord our God hath shewed us his glory and his great-asse” may be no more than wishful thinking, though of course errors could and would be corrected during the run. Though the good old British word “arse” was well established at the time, its American variant, “ass” didn’t come up till, well, America did.

Proofreading a huge work like the Bible is a royal pain. Any illusion that the divine author will use his good offices to guide the hand of the typesetter is of course no more than that, an illusion. Indeed I suppose one could argue that typos might be more frequent than usual in setting biblical matter because, at least in parts, the compositor will be dealing with familiar words and may be more inclined to allow his mind to slip into free-wheel mode while composing such familiar copy.

The Guardian (appropriately for fans of Private Eye) has a piece on the ten worst typos in the Bible, which naturally includes this one.

George R. R. Martin was born George Raymond Martin in 1948. According to Wikipedia, when he was 13 he adopted the additional name Richard upon his confirmation — though I prefer to suspect it was because he’d just read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Whatever, let it be quietly said that A Song of Ice and Fire is a lot better than Lord of the Rings.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was an Anglo-Saxon teacher in Oxford where he’d hang out with a group of kindred spirits, who rather preciously called themselves the Inklings: C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams J. A. W. Bennett, Owen Barfield, Neville Coghill, Richard Lancelyn Green and others. One cringes at the thought of what the conversation over a pint must have been like — as they apparently met in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen pints may not have been in question; it was probably amontillado.

The Hobbit was published in 1937 and was such a success that it was followed up by what on the face of it looks like a pretty non-commercial novel. Three volumes! Volumes 1 and 2 were first published in 1954, Volume 3 in 1955. My copies, the original George Allen and Unwin set, had suffered some water damage — just a general dampening resulting in a musty smell — no doubt as a result of being stored, like King Arthur’s Knights, for some time in a barn in deepest Somerset. A couple of years in the apparently book-friendly aridity of a New York apartment seem to have cured the problem.

The books were published before the dawn of the ISBN, though of course they have them now! There’s only a discursive copyright notice, but as you can read this was during the reign of the Berne Convention which was a bit less prescriptive than the Universal Copyright Convention when it comes to the © symbol. Included also is information about the printer, and this is required by copyright law in Britain, so that the printer may easily be sued for libel and obscenity along with publisher, author, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Thus we learn that the books were set in 10/11 Imprint at Jarrolds in Norwich.

The 11 point Imprint is serviceable without being beautiful — an altogether appropriate state for this job: typesetting should never draw attention to itself. And you can’t find much to criticize in the setting of the books. However I’d say the way this chapter title turnover was handled was an indication that the comp wasn’t paying much attention, though it’s probably more that Jarrolds’ house style didn’t rise to the level of caring overmuch about aesthetics. The comp has just keyed in the chapter title (nicely letterspaced it’s true) and when there was no more room in the measure, turned over to the next line, which to my eye makes COMPANY look a little lonely. (At least it wasn’t hyphenated CO-MPANY!)

A caring typesetter would have thought a) about aesthetics and b) about sense units, and would, I believe, have broken the line as I show in this chopped up copy.

To my eye this looks 100% better, although I did leave too little space between grey and company — I’m not as good at paste-up as I used to have to be. But of course stuff like this only triggers the most extreme typographical manias, and obviously had no effect on the sale!

Volume 2 has a quirky flaw which I’ve never encountered before. The middle two leaves of signature 8 have been missed in sewing and remain quite tightly held in the closed book but are easily removable as soon as you do anything as violent as turning the page. For this to have happened the sewing operative must have picked up the sig opening it at the wrong point rather than at the targeted center of the 32 page section. I suppose this must tell us something about the imposition scheme (folding pattern) as in order for the location of the center of the sig to be mistaken like this there would have to be no bolts at head or foot.

Eerily this loose 4-pager falls exactly at the middle of the entire 3-volume work — structurally not page count-wise. Each volume contains two books, and here you can see we are at the transition point from the first book of Volume 2 to the second, i.e. from the third of six to the fourth. I’m wondering whether I should take steps to ensure that this four-pager doesn’t fall out and get lost. All I can think to do is pass a thread down the spine hollow and bring it up in the middle of this fragment and knot it. Of course this loose pair of leaves has made it through more than half a century, so maybe I should just leave it alone, and trust to the good sense of my heirs and assigns.

For a novel this was a pretty lavish affair. There’s a tip-in 2-color map in the first volume, and in each of the three volumes, a folded map, also two-color, tipped to the front of the back fly leaf. The maps are folded and tipped in so that enthusiasts can read the book with the map open before them. The books are Medium Octavo, 5⅝” x 8¾” printed on a cream sheet with decent formation and reasonable opacity. They are bound in red cloth (not the red leather of the fictitious original by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, of which this presents itself as a sort of translation) with a red top stain, but no headbands — always rarer in Britain than in America. The jackets are printed by letterpress in three colors (black, red and “gold”) on a grey stock. The books include a few special sorts, and feature extracts in Elvish and other “Middle Earth” tongues — all of course made up by the author and his Inkling friends. There is even a series of appendices at the end of volume three treating with straight face such things as the “history” of royal families, chronologies, family trees, calendars, and languages — all of them fictitious although treated here as if in an academic monograph. Don humor!

With all these complexities the books were priced at 25 shillings each when I bought them in 1966, so the whole thing would set you back £3.15.0. The first volume is in its fifteenth printing, whereas volumes two and three are in their eleventh printings. All a huge success — as well as a reminder that many people will read volume one without ever going on to two and three.

Later: Today’s Shelf Awareness brings us the news that Bradley Hall has issued a three-hour “metal” musical version of The Fellowship of the Ring. You can find links to the work at MentalFloss. It all starts with a plea to right holders to be gentle with this adaptation. Mr Hall works from the movie version, and swears he will not give the same treatment to The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

I guess a computer is really more complicated than a Linotype machine, but it’s all inside that black box. It’s like magic: you don’t see any action. With the heavy metal machinery we used to use to make things, you’d see (and hear, and smell, and feel) lots of stuff happening. It is just amazing to get great chunks of metal, working at high temperatures and relatively high speeds, click-clacking and bang-thumping away, and despite their heavy steel structure, creating precise little things regularly, repeatedly, and reliably. Designing a machine with almost ten thousand moving parts is amazing enough: getting it to work every morning at the hands of a wage-earner, and getting it to keep on working for years and years requires dedication and love. No wonder the compositors were the aristocracy of labor.

The Museum of Printing has a series of ten videos about the Linotype machine. These are for the enthusiast — fourteen minutes on lubricating an obsolete machine is not everyone’s choice of pastime — but if you need to know, here is Linotype Legacy. If you just watch one, try the first which shows you what you’d have to do every morning to get the machine ready to go.

See also Linotype.

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.