The Loveliest Living Fossil

The ocean of ideas, teeming with words and numbers, is underpinned by a vast tectonic plate that’s powerfully transforming the language. It’s the force that gives rise to new continents of meaning, while it inters the remains of countless extinct species. We know its name, but we rarely think about it, and we certainly never visit. It’s just there, helping to clarify our words and numbers in an invisibly supportive way. But it’s one of the culture’s most unstoppable forces. It’s called Punctuation.

At its leading edge, punctuation is volcanically active, giving shape to concepts that move far faster than words. Anyone communicating today has seen #topics and #themes and #categories identified this way, using a symbol that was intuitively understood and replicated even before it was first called a hashtag in 2007. The symbol and its meaning are now universally recognized, transcending even the locality of language, but their use is scarcely a decade old — an astounding accomplishment for a bit of lexical fluff, when you consider that the newfangled OMG was first recorded in 1917 (and in a letter to Winston Churchill, no less.) Similarly meteoric is the rise of @, not only in its initial evolution from grubby commercial symbol to digital thingum, but in its latest metamorphosis, which has left it poised to become a bonafide verb. Formulations like “write in or @ us on Twitter”¹¹ I owe this cheeky example to Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster. You should read her blog. may seem casual, or may be arch, but since they’re easily understood by the initiated, they’re grammatical fair game. Punctuation FTW!

As it advances, punctuation leaves behind a sepulchral physical record, an ocean floor littered with the remains of creatures that didn’t make it. English-speakers who live with Imperial measurements can probably guess the meaning of ℔ from lb., but most have never encountered that symbol, and fewer still have run into a wild ℥, long since replaced by oz. (There may be pharmacists among us who know this one, but they are the same mysterous guild that traffics in ℞s and c̄s and other things that aren’t on the keyboard.) The ellipsis (…) drove out the asterism (⁂) to signal breaks in text, and the decimalized percent (%) eliminated the need for a permille (‰) — not to mention something called the “basis point,” also known as the per-ten-thousand, which naturally, and horribly, looks like this: ‱. As a typeface designer, I am not sorry to see these go. Drawing a character is one thing, but adding a character to a family that requires twenty-four variations, including an Extra Bold Compressed Italic, is another story. Especially if there are nearby lining figures and old-style figures and tabular figures to consider. So R.I.P., basis point. Or as a typographer would say, “.”

Between the symbols we live with and the symbols of yore is a third category, characters that are no longer considered ‘standard’ (by someone’s arbitrary standard), but are nonetheless still meaningful, and immediately understood. If you’ve ever addressed correspondence to someone in the care of someone else, you might have used ℅, a pretty hanger-on that I think has a place in the right kinds of typefaces, but one that should by no means be considered a typographic requirement. But the best and most active of these living fossils is a personal favorite: it’s the Numero, known to us by the monogram Nº.

Nº was the number sign before # became a number sign, and it refreshingly serves this one and only purpose. Compare the #, which when preceding a number is read as “number” (“#1 in my class”), but when following a number means “pound” or “pounds”²² If you’re curious what the # symbol has to do with the abbreviation lbs., here’s one possible missing link. (“70# uncoated paper”), leading to printshop pile-ups like “#10 envelope, 24# bond.” To programmers, a # can mean either “ignore what follows” (as in a Python comment) or “use what follows” (when referencing a page fragment, or a Unicode value in html.) To a proofreader, a # means “insert space,” so in the middle of a numbered list, the notation “line #” does not mean “line number,” but rather “add a line space.” Because of #’s resemblance to the musical symbol for “sharp” (♯), it’s a frequent stand-in for the word “sharp,” and often the correct way of rendering a trademarked term such as The C# Programming Language. The # is rapidly assuming musical duties as well, especially in online databases, leading to catalog collisions like “Prelude & Fugue #13 in F#.” How fortunate a designer would be to have a numero symbol, with which to write “Prelude & Fugue Nº 13 in F#,” or “Nº 10 Envelope, 24# bond.”

The Chicago Manual of Style unequivocally favors ‘no’ over ‘#’ when listing the issue number of a periodical: “When the issue number is given, it follows the volume number, separated by a comma and preceded by no.”³³ The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition, §17.163. And this introduces an interesting complication for Russian language periodicals, or those published in any language that uses the Cyrillic alphabet, because Cyrillic does not contain the letter N. It’s for this reason that typefaces that include Cyrillic alphabets always include the numero symbol, which is why you’ll find them in both Whitney and Gotham.

But the place you’ll find the greatest concentration of numero symbols in our library is in the Numbers collection, where I insisted upon them simply because they’re delightful. The typefaces in this collection interpret many different traditions in lettermaking, including rubber stamps, cash register receipts, railway car numbering and street signs, and in each of these environments you’ll find the numero. Many of these styles trace their origins to the nineteenth century, when numbers were more commonly introduced by Nº than #; others in the collection never used this symbol, but their styles seemed ripe for decoration. We recently had this same impluse with the Inkwell collection, which includes pen-drawn numeros in all forty-eight of its styles.

It’s this desire to decorate that shapes expectations about what should be in a typeface. On your keyboard next to the return key are the brackets [ ], and atop these are the braces { } that are sometimes — tellingly — called curly brackets. In theory, braces exist to present things on an equal footing: in music they connect staves that are played simultaneously, in genealogy they relate siblings, and in drama they group characters that move or speak as a unit (such as a nobleman’s Attendants in Shakespeare.) But braces are graphic rather than typographic forms, seldom meant to be used at the same size as the type they enclose, making them a questionable member of the character set. Frankly, they endure because they’re fetching, a spicy alternative to the humdrum geometry of square brackets, and these days they’re almost always used decoratively. Designers love to use braces, and type designers love to draw them, and it’s this unspoken bond that keeps them in the character set. Like the braces, the Nº is a reminder that typography exists to serve readers, and that readers do not live by semantic punctuation alone. There’s a place for variety and richness in typography, for colorful and engaging creatures that live at abyssal depths. Bring them up for a closer look: they’re splendid to behold. —JH

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&Co’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&Co. 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&Co 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

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Just kidding. A beauty though, isn’t it? This page of tastefully arranged number signs comes from a type specimen book issued by the Schelter & Giesecke foundry of Leipzig, around 1900. In a good type specimen, no piece of typographic material is too insignificant to merit proper attention, but to see such a peripheral symbol treated with this kind of thought and artistry is really touching. —JH

Our Middle Name

Last month’s posts about the and the ß prompted a flurry of e-mail inquiring about other special favorites in the character set. Matt McInerney guessed correctly that the ampersand is one for which we have special affection, and asked if there was anything else we could say about it. How could we not? Ampersand, after all, is H&Co’s middle name.

Though it feels like a modern appendix to our ancient alphabet, the ampersand is considerably older than many of the letters that we use today. By the time the letter W entered the Latin alphabet in the seventh century, ampersands had enjoyed six hundred years of continuous use; one appears in Pompeiian graffiti, establishing the symbol at least as far back as A.D. 79. One tidy historical account credits Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero’s secretary, with the invention of the ampersand, and while this is likely a simplified retelling, it’s certainly true that Tiro was a tireless user of scribal abbreviations. One surviving construction of the ampersand bears his name, and keen typophiles can occasionally find the “Tironian and” out in the world today.

As both its function and form suggest, the ampersand is a written contraction of “et,” the Latin word for “and.” Its shape has evolved continuously since its introduction, and while some ampersands are still manifestly e-t ligatures, others merely hint at this origin, sometimes in very oblique ways. The many forms that a font’s ampersand can follow are generally informed by its historical context, the whims of its designer, and the demands of the type family that contains it: below, a tour of some ampersands and the thinking behind them, along with an explanation of the storied history of the word “ampersand” itself.


Pilcrow & Capitulum

My last post made passing mention of the pleasures of designing the paragraph mark, prompting one reader to rightly ask, “how much fun can it really be to draw a backwards P?” [No more fun than it is to draw the rest of that font you’re using, matey. —Ed.] It may not seem obvious, but the lowly paragraph mark really does offer ample opportunity for invention.

Like most punctuation, the paragraph mark (or pilcrow) has an exotic history. It’s tempting to recognize the symbol as a “P for paragraph,” though the resemblance is incidental: in its original form, the mark was an open C crossed by a vertical line or two, a scribal abbreviation for capitulum, the Latin word for “chapter.” Because written forms evolve through haste, the strokes through the C gradually came to descend further and further, its overall shape ultimately coming to resemble the modern “reverse P” by the beginning of the Renaissance. Early liturgical works, in imitation of written manuscripts, favored the traditional C-shaped capitulum; many modern bibles still do. A capitulum is by no means out of place in a modern font, either: top row center is H&Co Didot, whose neoclassical origins suggested the inclusion of a shape from antiquity.

Above, a pageant of pilcrows from some of our fonts, suggesting that the possibilities are indeed endless. There seem to be eight fundamental questions that inform the shape of the pilcrow: (1) Should the form be P-like or C-like? (2) Should there be one stroke or two? (3) Should the bowl be solid or open? (4) Should the bottom of the strokes be plain, seriffed, or flourished? (5) Should the top right corner finish with a serif or not? (6) Should the bowl exhibit contrast to match the alphabet, or be monolinear like the mathematical operators? (7) Should the bowl connect with the first stroke, the second stroke, both, or neither? (8) Should the character align with the capitals, or descend to match the lowercase? Together these simple decisions offer 768 possible outcomes, none of which even begins to anticipate the stylized can-opener of Whitney or the bent paperclip of Cyclone. [Or the post-mounted mailbox of Idlewild, or the ski rope handle of Landmark Dimensional, now included above.]

In any case, Pilcrow & Capitulum would make a fine name for a pub, and a grand place to host a typographers’ wayzgoose. Or perhaps it’s a buddy movie about crime-fighting bibliographers: Capitulum wears cable knit sweaters and drinks single malt, and Pilcrow is a ladies’ man who drives an Austin Healey. Catch their zany antics and madcap adventures, etc, etc. —JH

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