To the Best of Our Knowledge

Since you’ll be at home tomorrow anyway, hopped up on leftover miniature chocolate bars that you couldn’t pawn off on discerning neighborhood kids, tune in to Wisconsin Public Radio to hear To the Best of Our Knowledge: tomorrow’s program will be about fonts. Join me, Tobias Frere-Jones, and Matthew Carter for an hour of typography, either on the air or online. Other guests include Kitty Burns Florey discussing handwriting, Tracy Honn on the work of the Silver Buckle Press — and discussing the Amazon Kindle, one of my favorite people, Nicholson Baker. —JH

Laminitis, or English As She Is Drawn

Typeface: Mercury Text Grade 3

Some would argue for Bleak House, others Middlemarch. The Great Gatsby has its proponents as well, along with Lolita and Heart of Darkness. But for me, it is none of these: there is a clear winner in the category, a single book that is the finest work of literature written in the English language. It is English As She Is Spoke, an 1853 phrasebook by Pedro Carolino, offered to Portuguese speakers as a guide to the English language. Uniquely, Carolino spoke not a word of English, and was not possessed of an English-Portuguese dictonary.

He overcame this disadvantage through the clever combination of a Portuguese-French dictionary and a French-English one, through which the entire corpus of English idioms was dragged, backwards, screaming. Thanks to Carolino, Portuguese readers of the nineteenth century might have learned such workaday English expressions as “to look for a needle in a hay bundle” and “the stone as roll not heap up foam.” Other timeless chestnuts include “take out the live coals with the hand of the cat,” “he has fond the knuckle of the business,” “he has a good beak,” and, bewilderingly, “to craunch the marmoset.” Mark Twain said of the book, “Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book, nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect.” Twain wrote the introduction to the American edition, which was first published in 1883 and has remained in print ever since. It is a classic.

Our industry’s standard-bearer seems to have gotten the Carolino treatment this morning. This profile of Matthew Carter that ran in the Washington Post has somehow found its way into and out of another language, presumably courtesy of some cruelly indifferent software. Of the craft of type design, our subject is quoted as saying, “the options are rattlingly limited. I can’t determine one forenoon I’m fatigued of the ‘b’ and I’m attending redesign it from excoriation. There holds defeat and captivation.” (What type designer has not experienced this?) Pay special attention to the passage in which Carter designs “the lowercase hydrogen,” whose ascender, of course, distinguishes it from the lowercase nitrogen.

Tobias and I were honored to offer up an encomium or two. “He holds the footing to be sort of haughty or elitist,” says Tobias, “but that ne’er haps to him.” And I obligingly identified Matthew as “the bozo who formulated brown.” But in any language, I think we all agree that Matthew Carter is “the Jehovah of Georgia.” —JH

Typographic Gifts for Designers, Part 8

The arrival of a new year means it’s time for a new Pentagram Calendar. We’ll forever be partial to the 2006 edition, for which Pentagram commissioned us to design twelve new fonts of numbers; we subsequently added three additional styles, anticipating of course the post-revolutionary 15-month calendar under which all earthlings will unite in observance of Hoefluary, Frerember and Jonesember. (Reminder: font licenses must be paid in full by Tribute Day, Hoefluary 15.)

But until the revolution comes, enjoy your quaint 12-month ways with the stylish 2008 Pentagram Typography Calendar. 2008 looks like it’s going to be a vintage year, for this year’s edition is designed exclusively using the typefaces of Matthew Carter. Few things can make January more exhilarating than a brace of Galliard old-style figures, and the appearance of the scarce Walker typeface in February hints at many more treats throughout the months to come. —JH

Reconstructing Harry

One of the best things about the type community is the way in which attitudes seem to transcend its generations. It’s heartening to be at a professional event, and see that the exciting new idea that’s being embraced by art school undergrads is also received with equal enthusiasm by, say, Max Kisman, Wim Crouwel, and Adrian Frutiger. But I’ve experienced one clear division in typography that’s drawn along generational lines, and it’s this: typophiles above a certain age know the type historian Harry Carter, and his son who’s also involved in type; and those below that age know the distinguished type designer Matthew Carter, and perhaps also that his dad was in the business. A recent book points out what woefully insufficient descriptions these are.

Continues…

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