That Bourgeois is just my type, of course…

Artisan composing movable type for Letterpress Printing.
Artisan composing movable type for Letterpress Printing.

What has been seen by millions but few would be able to identify correctly in a police station lineup? In different context, this would probably be a good pub-quiz stumper, but our column’s title must be a dead giveaway. The answer, of course, is ‘a typeface’.

The one I particularly had in mind was Bembo, the enduringly popular ‘bookface’ created in 1928-29 by the British branch of the Monotype Corporation and since used as the body text for countless volumes of printed matter of every description – from penny-dreadfuls to Nobel Prize-winning novels, Tory party election leaflets to academic text-books on philosophical ethics, maybe even Brexit buses… you name it. Everybody’s read Bembo at some stage, even if they didn’t realise it. .

But before we get on with, that, writing ‘bookface’ suggested that we should first get some type terminology out of the way. My partner Francesca has already referred to serif and sans-serif, and perhaps we should not assume that all our readers are familiar with the terminology of type, even if the widespread use of word-processing has now made one-time trade jargon very commonly known.

Readers will have noticed (we hope) that our column is titled ‘Typeface of the Week’, not ‘font’. There’s a very good reason: a font is just a sub-division of a face and further defines its application. Its point-size – how big is it? – its style – bold, italic, roman? – its case – upper or lower?

A font, therefore, is just a descriptor of how a typeface is used. The definition has become blurred in the word-processing era – and not by accident. Before MS Word, became the standard, readers (of a certain age) may remember WordStar PCWrite etc. Vendors would claim they came ‘with XX number of fonts!!’ when they only had one face in several size options and upper and lower as a basic standard.

The misleading ‘font’ usage continued as the number of typeface options and their accompanying variants grew, gradually edging out ‘typeface’ as the accurate term.

What about upper and lower cases? Quite simply, in the days of type-setting by hand when compositors would assemble lines of type by selecting individual letters from segmented trays – cases – the workbench arrangement was to have the case containing capital letters set above the one with non-capitals. We still use upper-case and lower-case as a throwback to that physical layout of the compositor’s workspace.

‘Serif’ is another throwback – this time to inscriptions on stone by Greek and Roman sculptors! Vertical lines had a tendency to crack, extending further than the uniform height or depth that the chiseller wanted. The solution was to chip a short section – the serif – at right angles to the vulnerable strokes, thus preventing unwanted fissures.

The origin of the word is obscure, but an 1813  book on Roman alphabets defined surripses, “usually pronounced surriphs“, as “projections which appear at the tops and bottoms of some letters, the O and Q excepted, at the beginning or end, and sometimes at each, of all”. The book also proposed that surripsis may be a Greek word derived from σῠν– (sun-, together) and ῥῖψῐς (rhîpsis, projection).

Sans serif – as the name makes clear – applies to typefaces that don’t have serifs (from the French sans ‘without’). Purely of academic interest now, but far from devoid of interest for our purposes here.

Serif and sans-serif typefaces
Serif and sans-serif typefaces

But to get to the point – the point – we need to back to a Milanese typographer, Francesco Torniella da Novara (c1490-1589) and his 1517 alphabet, L’Alfabeto. The construction of this alphabet is the first to be based on a logical measurement called ‘Punto’, corresponding to the ninth part of the height of the letters or the thickness of the principal stroke.

The size of the ‘punto’ or point has varied throughout the history of printing. Since the 18th century, it has ranged from 0.18 to 0.4 millimetres, but following the advent of desktop publishing in the 1980s and 1990s, digital printing has largely supplanted letterpress and has established the DTP (DeskTop Publishing) point as the de facto standard. The DTP point is defined as ​1⁄72 of an international inch = 0.353 mm, confirming the traditional ‘72 points to the inch’ of metal type-setting.

In metal type, the point size describes the height of the metal on which the typeface’s characters were cast – from the top of the ascenders extending above the body (as in d and b) to the bottom of the descenders below the body (as in p and g).

The key determinant is known as the x-height, the letter x having no ascenders or descenders. A face with a disproportionate x-height can thus give the appearance of being much bigger or smaller despite being the same point size. Take the word ‘dog’ for example. Fattening the o and shrinking ascenders and descenders in d and g will make it look much bigger; conversely, stretching the ascenders and descenders will give a skinny look.

In digital type, letters are designed around an imaginary space called an em square, although there is nothing imaginary about ‘em’ in traditional typesetting. It was simply the space occupied by a 12-point letter m – known as a ‘Pica em’ and used as a base unit for measuring horizontal applications such as column-widths and gutters (the ruled or clear space between columns).

Its companion is the ‘en’ – the space occupied by the letter n and equal to half an em. To avoid confusion in verbal instructions, they were known as ‘mutton’ and ‘nut’ in composing rooms (and still are to pre-digital type aficionados). I still have an em rule on my desk, at one time an indispensable measurement tool for sub-editors and anyone working metal production of printed matter,

Pica itself dates from a time when type sizes had names as well as numbers – Pica for 12-pt, Nonpareil (pronounced nomple) for 6-pt, Bourgeois (pronounced burjoyce) for 9-pt, and so on.

Returning to modern times and digital type, when a point size is specified, the font is scaled so that its em square has a side length of that particular length in points. Anything else you need to know? We’ve covered point size, serifs, upper and lower etc so that will do for now. The story of Bembo and bookfaces can wait for a later instalment.