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Printers’ Terminology

September 17, 2014
by the gentle author

In little over a year, I have become the publisher of five books and so I thought it was high time I acquainted myself with all the correct language that I may have a better grasp of what the printers are talking about. To this end, Charles Pertwee of Baddeley Brothers, the longest established engravers in the City of London & the East End, lent me his copy of John Southward’s ‘Dictionary of Typography’ from 1875, which lists all the relevant terminology. Today, I have selected some of my favourite entries – as much for their arcane poetry as for the education of my readers.



ABRIDGEMENT – An epitome of a book, made by omitting the less important matter.

ADVERSARIA – Commonplace books: a miscellaneous collection of notes remarks and extracts.

APPRENTICE – An apprentice is a person described in law books as a species of servant, and so called from the French verb apprendre – to learn – because he is bound by indenture to serve a master for a certain term, receiving in return for his services instruction in his masters’s trade, profession or art.

BASTARD TITLE –  The short or condensed title preceding full title of the work.

BATTER – Any injury to the face of the type sufficient to prevent it showing clearly in printing.

BEARD OF A LETTER – The outer-angle of the square shoulder of the shank, which reaches almost to the face of the letter, and is commonly scraped off by the Founders, serving to leave a white square between the lower face of the type and the top part of any ascending letter which happen to come in the line following.

BIENVENUE – An obsolete term by which was meant formerly the fee paid on admittance to a ‘Chapel.’

BODKIN – A pointing steel instrument used in correcting, to pick wrong or imperfect letters out of a page.

BOTCHED – Carelessly or badly-done work.

BOTTLE-ARSED – Type that is wider at the bottom than the top.

BOTTLE-NECKED – Type that is thicker at the top than the bottom.

CANDLESTICK – In former times, when Compositors worked at night by the light of candles, they used a candlestick loaded at the base to keep it steady. A few offices use candlesticks at the present day.

CASSIE-PAPER – Imperfect paper, the outside quires of a ream.

CHAFF – Too frequently heard in the printing office, when one Compositor teases another, as regards his work, habits, disposition etc

CHOKED – Type filled up with dirt.

COVENTRY – When a workman does not conform to the rules of the ‘Chapel,’ he is sent to Coventry. That is, on no consideration, is any person allowed to speak with him, apart from business matters, until he pays his dues.

DEAD HORSE – When a Compositor has drawn more money on account than he has actually earned, he is said to be ‘horsing it’ and until he has done enough work in the next week to cover the amount withdrawn, he is said to be working a ‘dead horse.’

DEVIL – is the term applied to the printer’s boy who does the drudgery work of a print office.

DONKEY – Compositors were at one period thus styled by Pressmen in retaliation for being called pigs by them.

EIGHTEENMO – A sheet of paper folded into eighteen leaves, making thirty-six pages.

FAT-FACE LETTER – Letter with a broad face and thick stem.

FLOOR PIE – Type that has been dropped upon the floor during the operations of composition or distribution.

FLY – The man or boy who takes off the sheet from the tympan as the Pressman turns it up.

FORTY-EIGHTMO – A sheet of paper folded into forty-eight leaves or ninety-six pages.

FUDGE – To execute work without the proper materials, or finish it in a bungling or unworkmanlike manner.

GOOD COLOUR – When a sheet is printed neither too dark or too light.

GULL – To tear the point holes in a sheet of paper while printing.

HELL – The place where the broken and battered type goes to.

JERRY – A peculiar noise rendered by Compositors and Pressmen when one of their companions renders themselves ridiculous in any way.

LAYING-ON-BOY – The boy who feeds the sheets into the machine.

LEAN-FACE – A letter of slender proportions, compared with its height.

LIGHT-FACES – Varieties of face in which the lines are unusually thin.

LUG – When the roller adheres closely to the inking table and the type, through its being green and soft, it is said to ‘lug.’

MACKLE – An imperfection in the printed sheets, part of the impression appears double.

MONK – A botch of ink on a printed sheet, arising from insufficient distribution of the ink over the rollers.

MULLER – A sort of pestle, used for spreading ink on the ink table.

NEWS-HOUSE – A printing office in which newspapers only are printed. This term is used to distinguish from book and job houses.

OCTAVO – A sheet of paper folded so as to make eight leaves or sixteen pages.

ON ITS FEET – When a letter stands perfectly upright, it is said to be ‘on its feet.’

PEEL – A wooden instrument shaped like a letter ‘T’ used for hanging up sheets on the poles.

PENNY-A-LINER – A reporter for the Press who is not engaged on the staff, but sends in his matter upon approbation.

PIE – A mass of letters disarranged and in confusion.

PIG – A Pressman was formerly called so by Compositors.

PIGEON HOLES – Unusually wide spaces between words, caused by the carelessness or want of taste of the workman.

PRESS GOES EASY – When the run of the press is light and the pull is easy.

QUIRE – A quire of paper for all usual purposes consists of twenty-four sheets.

RAT-HOUSE – A printing office where the rules of the printers’ trade unions are not conformed to.

SCORPERS – Instruments used by Engravers to clear away the larger portions of wood not drawn upon.

SHEEP’S FOOT – An iron hammer with a claw end, used by Pressmen.

‘SHIP – A colloquial abbreviation of companionship.

SHOE – An old slipper is hung at the end of the frame so that the Compositor, when he comes across a broken or battered letter, may put it there.

SLUG – An American name for what we call a ‘clump.’

SQUABBLE – Lines of matter twisted out of their proper positions with letters running into wrong lines etc.

STIGMATYPY –  Printing with points, the arrangement of points of various thicknesses to create a picture.

WAYZGOOSE – An annual festivity celebrated in most large offices.


You may also like to read about

William Caslon, Letter Founder

At the Caslon Foundry

14 Responses leave one →
  1. September 17, 2014

    Lovely definitions, they are arcane poetry!

  2. September 17, 2014

    Fascinating and completely new to me.

    I particularly liked the definition for Hell !


  3. September 17, 2014

    I bought a old printers’ tray the other day and learned the derivation of upper case and lower case (I think!) the spaces for the printing blocks for the capital letters being at the top (upper) of the tray and the rest lower! Love the blog and in awe of the task you have set yourself! Keep blogging.

  4. September 17, 2014

    Wonderful words, fascinating insights.
    We must have a Wayzgoose (though we are a small office).

  5. September 17, 2014

    My father has been a publisher his whole life and so I was always interested in these things too. Fascinating!

    Love & Peace

  6. steve clarke permalink
    September 17, 2014

    Surprised the etymology of the word THE PRESS describing journalists on a paper was not included. Just guessing that it arose from the printing process.

  7. September 17, 2014

    The Oxford Guild of Printers, donkeys, pigs, and all, will be having their Wayzgoose at Oxford Brooks University on November 11th. Free entry and all welcome.

  8. Rosemary Hoffman permalink
    September 17, 2014

    Fascinating !

  9. Nina Archer permalink
    September 17, 2014

    … I forwarded this very interesting article to a friend who only retired from the print trade in the last five years and he replied straight away saying that he went on a wayzgoose to Scarborough at the last place he worked for, so that is a word I had never heard before and yet it is still being used in printing circles today …

  10. September 17, 2014

    Gorgeous list, thank you! I’m going to adopt the term “floor pie” for any mess that’s been dropped on the floor. Leslie

  11. Mervyn Cripps permalink
    September 17, 2014

    They have a Wayzgoose in Grimsby, Ontario each spring. It is mainly for those who mainly print small books by hand-set type and letterpress printing, then binding them into books for sale. Very artsy, but individually professional quality. Excellent.

  12. Jane permalink
    September 18, 2014

    Another fascinating post, thank you

  13. Howard Lane permalink
    September 18, 2014

    The old proof reader who worked for the Sunday Times and also came in and read for us when I worked at a printers in Holborn always called a desk a “frame”, i.e. the frame that held the lines of type in place. “I’ll put it on your frame” he said in his broad Scots accent, after he had proof read the text for the next print run.

  14. Eric Armstrong permalink
    September 2, 2017

    Your blog revived wonderful memories of my life as a compositor. I started work aged 15 as a printers devil in 1949. While the point system of type sizes was universal then l was always fascinated by pre point system type faces and the wonderful names they were called e.g. Pearl, Ruby and other exotic names which l can no longer remember, happy days.

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