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The Language Of Printing

January 30, 2020
by the gentle author

My portrait of Gary Arber, the legendary East End printer

In celebration of the current exhibition at Nunnery Gallery of the history of printing in the East End, LIGHTBOXES & LETTERING, I have selected favourite entires from John Southward’s ‘Dictionary of Typography’ 1875, chosen 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.

LIGHTBOXES & LETTERING runs at Nunnery Gallery until Sunday March 29th

You may also like to read about

William Caslon, Letter Founder

At the Caslon Foundry

11 Responses leave one →
  1. esther permalink
    January 30, 2020

    That was fun reading; I know a lot of these words in another context; so it’s interesting to learn the meaning in the printing-business. Thanks for posting! My mother learned how to print when she was in Art-School; I myself love any kind of printing-stamp and inherited my Grandfather’s Type-collection.

  2. Anne Spencer permalink
    January 30, 2020

    Very interesting exhibition, I can recommend.
    I remembered reading about Gary Arber in your previous post!

  3. January 30, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a fabulous, entertaining selection of terms from Southward’s “Dictionary of Typography.” I always learn something new on SPITALSFIELD’S LIFE.

    Obviously, these printers were readers too, eh?

  4. January 30, 2020

    As a translator, and a lover of words, it’s a marvellous list. Thanks, G.A.

  5. January 30, 2020

    Oh boy — the mother lode. (wait – was that on the list……?) I love specialized language and
    arcane terms from all professions. This is a total gem. Back when dinosaurs walked the earth
    (in my childhood) all Pittsburgh school children were taken “down town” to the Make-Ready Room of The Pittsburgh Press. I still recall seeing the permanently-stained fingers of the men, inserting letters at breakneck speed. And somehow the smell of the place has stayed with me. A mix
    of metallic grit, glorious newsprint, wooden floorboards sodden with ink, and good old fashioned
    industrial Pittsburgh grime! And, yes, back then we had SEVERAL daily newspapers.
    Thank you for divulging this distinctive language, GA.

  6. January 30, 2020

    Interesting list, a long time since I’ve seen ‘Southward’ and I was surprised I only knew about two-thirds of the terms. I worked in a very traditional letterpress house, but most of them had fallen out of use by the ’60s

  7. paul loften permalink
    January 30, 2020

    When I was at school in Bethnal Green in around 68 a lot of the lads in the 5th year aged around 16 left for jobs in the print . I recall most of them were very bright and talented and could have gone on to university but if your dad was in the print that was a great job and most of them took it. Possibly the best you could have if you were working class as was a closed shop. Natsopa and Sogat ran the show. I recall I had an offer from a friend that they possibly could get me a job which was like gold dust. I was tempted until I heard about the initiation ceremony that he had to go through. I can’t repeat it here ! I declined and went on to the sixth form and then took a job in the City, which was the usual option for those in the sixth form if they did not go to uni. As it turned out it was the best option for me. Once computerised the print jobs vanished as did Fleet Street. Thank you the legendary Gary Arber and GA for bringing this aspect of the print trade to us

  8. David Green permalink
    January 30, 2020

    As someone who has been in the printing trade for 30 years, this is a delight for me to read.

  9. January 30, 2020

    Are bottle necked and bottle arsed definitions reversed in the definitions?

  10. January 31, 2020

    Great post and something I shall be attending. Wile I was at the LCP I learn letterpress printing and composing and learnt to admire the printers craft. Another term we used was ‘Muttons and Nuts’ which was jargon for different widths of letter spacing if I’ve remembered it correctly!

  11. January 31, 2020

    Wonderful post and as someone who grew up in a print shop I have the smell of ink in my nostrils and paper cuts between my toes. Only one of them is actually true!

    One term that is missing, and this is by no means a criticism, is ‘printer’s devil’ – I have a t-shirt with this term on it complete with a wicked illustration of a devil. From the amazing Hamilton Wood Type Museum in the US – look it up! Anyway, the printer’s devil was a child who had the unenviable task of crawling under the printing machines to retrieve type, tools, paper and anything else that fell through the presses onto the floor. What a mucky, and of course, dangerous job!

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