The Secret History of Typography in the Oxford English Dictionary

Nick Martens digs into the pages of the great dictionary that chronicles the history and development of the English language, and unearths some typographic gems.

To those who would say that there is nothing “secret” about the publicly available Oxford English Dictionary, or that browsing said publication’s website for an hour hardly constitutes a “history,” I have prepared the following response:


Citing usage from 1949, the OED calls this mark the dog’s bollocks, which it defines as, “typogr. a colon followed by a dash, regarded as forming a shape resembling the male sexual organs.” This is why I love scrounging around the linguistic scrap heap that is the OED. I always come across a little gold. And by “gold,” I mean, “vulgar, 60-year-old emoticons.”

If you look at the above definition, you’ll notice the typog. tag. That denotes entries relating to typography, which will be the focus of this trip to the junkyard. But if you find this exercise interesting, you can substitute just about any subject and find similarly fascinating results.[1]

Browsing the OED is a tantalizing experience because it provides windows into so many obscure corners of history. But since the citations are small and fragmentary, they invite the imagination to fill in the blank spaces. Take this 1688 quote for bake: “when Letters stick together in distributing… This is called the Letter is Baked.” So we learn that, when printing, the physical pieces of type occasionally stuck together, but we’re left to wonder why this happened, how severe it was, and how printers corrected it. Did baking ruin the type? Did each printer have his own method to prevent baking, a trade secret he passed down only to his apprentice? Did some Elizabethan Edison develop a method for casting type that eliminated baked letters altogether? These are the sorts of questions that the OED can raise, which can be investigated later (but will more likely just be blended in with the actual definition, creating a fictitious pseudo-history in the memory of the reader). Though sometimes the dictionary answers its own questions, as a similar citation for bake from 1963 shows that printers likely never overcame the issue of sticky letters.

My favorite entries are those that illuminate some archaic mechanical process, such as rounce: “The handle of the winch by which the spit and wheel are turned so as to run the carriage of a hand-press in and out.” Reading this, I can see the grizzled old printer furiously cranking a giant, iron, Rube-Goldberg-esque contraption, pushing thick sheets of papyrus through the inky press. The fact that I don’t have any idea what the machine was made of or what it printed upon doesn’t matter so much as the brief flash understanding that comes from interacting with these discarded bits of our language. I enjoy a newer word — turtle, from 1860 — for similar reasons: “a curved bed in which types or stereo-types are secured, and which is mounted on one of the cylinders of a rotary printing-press: so called from a fancied resemblance of the bed to the back of a turtle.” Again, though I can’t distill anything concrete from this definition, it paints a vivid picture in my mind.

Exploring the dictionary often sends you scurrying down little ratholes, chasing one obscure word after another as they appear in successive definitions. Looking up bite, 1677 — “A blank left in printing through the accidental covering of a portion of the ‘forme’ by the frisket” — sends me to frisket, 1683 — “A thin iron frame hinged to the tympan, having tapes or paper strips stretched across it, for keeping the sheet in position while printing” — which leads me to tympan, 1580 — “An appliance in a printing-press, interposed between the platen or impression-cylinder and the sheet to be printed, in order to soften and equalize the pressure” — and then I backtrack to look up fly the frisket, a phrase cited in 1871 — “to turn down the frisket and tympan by the same motion.” Whew! (I could repeat the process with forme from the first definition, but I think that’s just form with an “e” on the end.)

Of course, the OED is also good for pure vocab porn. In fact, it was Martin McClellan’s blog Hellbox that first lead me to the typog. tag, hoping to learn a bit more about his great title word than the stock definition on his about page. (To no avail: hell, 1870, “receptacle or place for damaged or broken type; hell box.”) Sadly, the cool-sounding typography words often lead to anticlimax. An ionic font has nothing to do with Star Wars. It’s just “a type face distinguished by prominent serifs and a high degree of legibility.” And in typography, a pigeonhole is “an excessively wide space between two words.” Yawn.

But I did stumble across two of the most badass words ever during this little search: archetypist and palaeotypographist. They both mean the same thing: “One who studies early typography” / “An expert in early printing or typography.” It think it would be worth enduring decades of academic tedium to be able to put one of those on your business card.

So that’s a look at how the OED can shed light on areas much broader than the simple derivations and definitions of words. Indeed, the dictionary serves as an ad-hoc catalog of every experience that any English-speaking person felt interesting enough to write down. And, above all, it is the world’s leading source of anachronistic double entendres. Here’s one more for the road:

To beat fat, 1683, “If a Press-man Takes too much Inck with his Balls, he Beats Fat.”

1. For example, I just spent five minutes exploring the Billiards tag and came up with this one from 1674: “Fornicator: Make your Adversary a Fornicator, that is, having past your self a little way, and the other’s Ball being hardly through the Port, you put him back again, and it may be quite out of Pass.” I have no idea what any of that means, but I’m sure it was properly dirty 300 years ago.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.