House of Flying Reference Marks

Last spring, when answering a reader’s question about our favorite characters to draw, I got to spend some time with some of our beloveds: the and ß that rarely see the light of day, as well as H&FJ’s middle name, &. It took great self-control not to spill the beans about another pair of favorites, the dagger and double dagger, for already waiting in the wings were my favorite daggers to ever come out of H&FJ. They’re the ones in our just-released Sentinel family, seen here.

Daggers come from that archipelago of typographic symbols known as reference marks, which refer readers elsewhere for explanatory or exegetic notes. The traditional first-order reference mark is the asterisk¹¹ The New Oxford English Dictionary advises: “Avoid pronouncing this word ‘astericks’ or ‘asterik,’ as many regard such pronunciations as uneducated.” Frighteningly, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2003) cites some printed examples of the spellings “astericks” and “asterick,” in The Washington Times (1998) and Florida Today (1999), respectively., a longtime favorite: in The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst observes that asterisks have been in continuous use for five thousand years. Asterisks can take countless forms, though custom favors ones shaped like stars, flowers, or bathtub faucets; any number of petals is permissible as well, with five-, six-, and eight-lobed asterisks being most common. [Clock starts now in anticipation of the world’s first seven-lobed asterisk. —Ed.] The approach that a designer follows in the asterisk is usually echoed in the typeface’s second-order reference mark, the dagger (also known as the obelus, obelisk, or long cross), and its third-order mark, the double dagger (a.k.a. diesis or double obelisk.) Both characters have functions in genealogy and other life sciences, where the asterisk indicates the year of birth (*1499), and the dagger the year of death (†1561). There are standard fourth-, fifth- and sixth-order reference marks, too: they are the section mark (§), parallels (||), and number sign (#), after which the cycle repeats with doubles, triples, and so on: *, †, ‡, §, ||, #, **, ††, ‡‡, §§, ||||, ###, ***, †††, ‡‡‡, etc. Beyond three, numbered footnotes are always preferable, even if you are David Foster Wallace.

Daggers afford the type designer a rare opportunity to quote from more widely recognized visual languages, such as architecture and other applied arts. The daggers in our H&FJ Didot family echo the kinds of details common in period decoration, and those in Whitney evoke the simplified asterisk of the typewriter, its center removed to prevent the buildup of ink. In Sentinel, we wanted the design’s industrial brawn to be mellowed by some lyrical flourishes, which in the daggers produced a ‘twisted quillon²² Dagger anatomy, for the quiz: the quillon is the guard that separates the hilt of a knife from its blade, and the choil is the notch where the blade meets the quillon.’ that you’ll find in another place slab serifs traditionally reside: find a pack of playing cards, and look closely at the dagger of the “suicide king.” —JH

A Word For That

Typeface: Chronicle Deck Bold Italic

Is that the sound of a designer waiting for Adobe Updater to complete? No, just a brief response to a question on Docs Populi, via Coudal Partners:

“What does one call the use of random non-alphabet characters to indicate cursing? It’s a universally understood device, and is applied in both graphic and textual settings. It is such a commonly accepted staple that I assumed it must already be defined and described — but apparently it’s not.”

But it is! The term is grawlix, and it looks to have been coined by Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker around 1964. Though it’s yet to gain admission to the Oxford English Dictionary, OED Editor-at-Large Jesse Sheidlower describes it as “undeniably useful, certainly a word, and one that I’d love to see used more.” As the author of the grawlixy compendium The F-Word, Sheidlower’s perspective is unique — and unassailable, if you’re wise, since he and his cronies have the power to immortalize naysayers as expletives themselves. (Don’t laugh: such was the fate of philistine Thomas Bowdler, miser Charles Boycott, and jingoist Nicolas Chauvin, to say nothing of famous typeface designer James W. Scumbag.)

Until its OED entry is solemnized, we’ll have to settle for this definition on Wiktionary: “grawlix, n. A string of typographical symbols used (especially in comic strips) to represent an obscenity or swear word.” I don’t think I’ll ever look at a character set quite the same way again. —JH

The Oxford English Dictionary in Limerick Form

Nineteen years of designing typefaces has amply proven H&FJ’s Third Law, which states that for every act of exhaustive research, there is an equal and opposite act of total silliness. This principle extends from typography into other disciplines as well: behold — no kidding — the Oxford English Dictionary in Limerick Form.

Precisely the kind of project that the internet was made for, the OEDILF (stop snickering!) has brought together contributors from around the globe for the purpose of rendering every entry in the world’s most famous dictionary into a-a-b-b-a form. The fascicle A-Cr is well underway, with 45,297 entries so far, making this a site you don’t want to stumble upon when you’re up against a deadline.

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Favicon Unmasked

Designer Randy Pfeil wrote to ask the burning question, “what the heck is the favicon for typography.com? All I can see is a pixelated masked-man. What’s the story?”

In a signature bit of H&FJ atavism, it’s a sort, otherwise known as a piece of printing type, seen in profile. The printing surface — uncoincidentally called the “type face” — is at the top. Below are the “feet,” separated by a “groove,” accentuated in our tiny icon. At left is the “nick” that appears on the front edge of a piece of type, a detail that helps establish that type is correctly oriented in a composing stick.

As a sort of typographic Easter egg, hunt around the character set of any H&FJ font and you’ll see an image of a sort lurking somewhere inside. —JH

What’s in a Font Name

For as long as fonts have had names, they’ve had bad names. Historical inaccuracies have been common for two hundred years: typefounders of the Industrial Revolution groped for historical labels to apply to newly-invented styles (Egyptian, Gothic, etc.), and it wasn’t long before typefaces began to bear the recognizable names of unrelated historical figures. Alongside the very un-Dutch Series Rembrandt, a nineteenth century French specimen book shows the Series Victor Hugo, unconnected with the author but doubtless hoping to cash in on his celebrity; Hugo was still alive at the time.

But most entertaining are faces like this one, which honor prominent figures from typography’s own history. This charming face is from the 1928 type specimen of the Nebiolo foundry in Torino, and here we have a typeface full of Art Nouveau vigor, fresh from the window of a chic gelateria, or a cinema marquee. And what famous early twentieth century figure is it named after? Why, Johannes Gutenberg of course (d. 1468), father of movable type. Can’t you just see Gutenberg stepping out of his Fiat GP racer, his handsome olive complexion set off by a rakish tweed cap?

It seems that most of the world’s typefounders have suffered this cruel fate. Here are some especially juicy mistreatments.

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