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January 21, 2010 2:03 PM   Subscribe

The Secret History of Typography in the Oxford English Dictionary. Although sadly not about font design or kerning, Nick Martens' exploration in the OED is still pretty interesting.

(more fun is probably available for those with an OED subscription)
posted by shakespeherian (28 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
And here I was hoping for a secret history of kerning. Once again I leave disappointed, to return to my lonely room and study my collection of ligatures.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:08 PM on January 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


"Indeed, the dictionary serves as an ad-hoc catalog of every experience that any English-speaking person felt interesting enough to write down. And, above all, it is the world’s leading source of anachronistic double entendres. Here’s one more for the road:

To beat fat, 1683, “If a Press-man Takes too much Inck with his Balls, he Beats Fat.”"


I did not know that.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 2:08 PM on January 21, 2010


Cool article, but instead of all this idle wondering, he would be well-served to go to the OED's source for many of these entries, Moxon's Mechanick Exercises.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:12 PM on January 21, 2010


:–
posted by Kabanos at 2:17 PM on January 21, 2010


That dog's bollocks entry in full.
posted by mattn at 2:39 PM on January 21, 2010


No worries, TD. Memail me and I'll supply a secret history of me.
posted by kerning at 2:47 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: Again, though I can’t distill anything concrete from this definition, it paints a vivid picture in my mind.
posted by dhartung at 3:11 PM on January 21, 2010


Sadly I wasn't the first one to think of it:
   Domain Name: ARCHETYPIST.COM
      Created on: 19-Jan-10

posted by fritley at 3:12 PM on January 21, 2010


I'm disappointed by how shallow these investigations are, illustrated nicely by this sentence:

The fact that I don’t have any idea what the machine was made of or what it printed upon doesn’t matter so much as the brief flash understanding that comes from interacting with these discarded bits of our language.


He's just randomly looking up things that spark a passing fancy, but he's not really interested in understanding any of them. Take his disappointment that ionic fonts have "nothing to do with Star Wars." I've never heard the term before, but it's pretty obvious that it's referring to the Ionic style of classical architecture. I suspect there's an interesting analysis to be made of the similarities between architecture and typography (are there Doric and Corinthian fonts? What about modern influences between the two practices?), but there's nothing like that here.
posted by echo target at 3:28 PM on January 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


I was hoping this would be the history of typography of the OED. Maybe it was too many years squinting at the 4-up version, but the leading always seemed really irregular on the OED's pages.

So if :- is the emoticon for "dog's bollocks", that seems to make the smiley :-) ambiguously suggestive. Yeah, I'm talking to you, cocknose.
posted by Nelson at 3:32 PM on January 21, 2010


While not from the OED and barely related to the matter at hand, I'd just like to drag out "dord", my favorite typography-related dictionary fuckup.
posted by griphus at 3:36 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cool, I'd never heard of "dord" before. It's a good thing I'm not in a position of lexicographical responsibility, as I would've just said "screw it... dord means density now."
posted by Crane Shot at 3:53 PM on January 21, 2010


So if :- is the emoticon for "dog's bollocks", that seems to make the smiley :-) ambiguously suggestive.

A hyphen is not an em (or en) dash.

:—
posted by D.C. at 3:55 PM on January 21, 2010


The typography of the online OED is somewhat disappointing. In these days of Unicode, it still uses tiny gifs, with alt texts like {eth} or {yogh}, to represent non-Latin characters (Greek letters, or Old English letters like thorns and yoghs), making cut and paste tricky. I suppose it's understandable in a way, making sure that all users can see the entries as they won't necessarily have fonts that support the more outré characters, but it still looks rather jarring.

However, I've just discovered a Greasemonkey script that replaces the gifs with the actual characters.
posted by Electric Dragon at 4:08 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have an OED on my desk at work. It's my favourite thing. I pull it out and look through it whenever I can.

I also looked through the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary the other day - it was cool, a whole pile of complicated cross references, and a volume to look up, and one to find the words in. Very awesome.

There's nothing better than finding old words and seeing ones that you've never heard of before.
posted by jonathanstrange at 4:12 PM on January 21, 2010


sadly not about font design or kerning

What the hell?

:(

How will I show all these internet people that I'm a wannabe, half-autistic freak quirky, kind of geeky (but not too geeky) intellectual who thinks and posts about font, design, and especially font design?

Wait! Don't go! Did I tell you I have a mild case of synethesia? Have you ever seen "Helvetica?" I'm special and smart! Some people have said I might be a little bit Asperger.

Where are you going?

I've got pop-culture references... chiptunes... a book about typefaces! I've got a Dreamcast, for Christ's sake!

Noooooo....
posted by hamida2242 at 4:22 PM on January 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


All kidding aside it was a pretty interesting post
posted by hamida2242 at 4:23 PM on January 21, 2010


And here I was hoping for a secret history of kerning. Once again I leave disappointed, to return to my lonely room and study my collection of ligatures.

Or a secret history of kennings. That would be relevant to my interests.
posted by ersatz at 4:26 PM on January 21, 2010


I have an OED on my desk at work.

jesus fuck your desk must be enormous
posted by Nothing... and like it at 4:33 PM on January 21, 2010 [6 favorites]


Great post. (Of course, if I could only rescue one of my 5,000 books from my burning house, it would be the OED, so I'm prejudiced.)

> I'm disappointed by how shallow these investigations are

Yes, because anything less than a doctoral dissertation with graphs and full bibliography is not worth reading, much less posting on MetaFilter. Say, would you like to buy a slightly used copy of the Treaty of Westphalia?
posted by languagehat at 5:24 PM on January 21, 2010


It's the mutt's nuts!
posted by sidereal at 5:45 PM on January 21, 2010


Long lead-up for an OK joke.
posted by bardic at 6:27 PM on January 21, 2010


Your house is burning and you took time to post on Mefi? That's hardcore.
posted by oddman at 7:59 PM on January 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


gah! you gave a conditional. Now my joke makes no sense. :(
posted by oddman at 8:00 PM on January 21, 2010


In these days of Unicode, it still uses tiny gifs, with alt texts like {eth} or {yogh}

There's a reason for that. It took a ton of work back in the 90s to translate the print OED into an online form, and Unicode wasn't well-supported. I'd still rather see little weird letter gifs than little blank boxes where letters should be. From How the Oxford English Dictionary went online:
But choosing the unique codes for the thousand special characters in OED only addresses a fraction of the technical problem. How are you going to display special characters like an Assyrian H or an astrological moon symbol that aren’t part of the standard HTML set for display on web pages?...To handle all the variations, OUP commissioned 2,500 hand-drawn images to handle the display of a thousand or so special characters as they occurred in different contexts in the dictionary.
Anyway, in a typographical context, a Press-man's Balls are basically leather-covered mallets that he uses to ink his laid-out page of letters, since people hadn't yet developed fancy mechanical devices or machines to ink letters. This is where I learned about printer's balls: Capping the Balls: A Glimpse into an 18th Century Print Shop.

Rounce actually seems like a semi-useful word. When I've used letterpresses and flat bed presses, there is still a handle that you use to roll the cylinders back and forth (self-link: short video of turning what may be a rounce). When I was learning how to print, I definitely learned tympan — you have to be careful to not print on the tympan and get it dirty, because it's tedious to replace. My college printshop also has a hellbox full of damaged type, but we just called it the coffee can full of damaged type.

In other words: this guy should get himself to a center for book arts. He would have fun.
posted by dreamyshade at 8:39 PM on January 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


My college printshop also has a hellbox full of damaged type, but we just called it the coffee can full of damaged type.

We called ours the "pied type." Because when you think of barely contained chaos, what else comes to mind besides pie?
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:22 AM on January 22, 2010


Yes, but, Dreamyshade, I think at this point they can do a search-and-replace for eth, thorn, yogh, and the like.
posted by joeclark at 10:30 AM on January 22, 2010


Yeah yeah, maybe I just find the gifs charming...
posted by dreamyshade at 12:15 PM on January 22, 2010


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