I Love Typography

eXtreme Type Terminology

Part 2: Anatomy of a Letterform—by Paul Dean

I was killing time and pain at a nearby bar called The Ear, so named because the two ribs of the ‘B’ in the neon sign that read ‘Bar’ had burned out years ago. So had most of the patrons.”—Kinky Friedman, Blast From the Past, 1998.

Just as Kinky Friedman anthropomorphizes this B, giving it human characteristics, namely ribs, type designers have come up with some very human terms to describe the details of the letterforms that they create. They speak the arm (of, say, an E), the crotch (of an M), which could further be described as an acute crotch or an obtuse crotch, the ear (of some g’s), which might be a flat ear or a floppy ear, the eye (of an e), the leg (of a k), the shoulder (of an n), the tail (of a j or a Q), and the spine (of an S). There is a sketch by the great type designer Ed Benguiat that labels the curl, the lobe and the ball of a single question mark.

typeface anatomy


Typically, the point which rests under a question mark or hovers over a lowercase i or a j is called a dot, and the etymology of the word reveals another anthropomorphism: at one time the word dot referred explicitly to the head of a boil or pimple. The dot is also sometimes quaintly referred to as a jot (from the Greek iota) or a tittle (from the Latin titulus).

Nature is recalled in a few terms, such as the stem, the arc of the stem (otherwise known as the shoulder), and the splayed stem. And this is not surprising; an organic sense of life separated the Roman alphabet from the geometric Greek characters that originally inspired it.

Architecturalisms, borrowed from the language of architecture and design, are also common. And why shouldn’t they be? After all, nothing resembles a Roman monument more than the Roman M, especially one with serifs. And the second character in the Phoenician alphabet, beth, which evolved into the Greek beta and the Roman b, comes from the Phoenician word for “house”. Even today, a capital B, if turned counter-clockwise 90°, as the Phoenicians oriented it, resembles a building.

swash q

Some of these architecturalisms are the aperture (of a c), apex (of an A), axis or stress (most obvious in an O), the ball (at the bottom of a question mark), the bar, crossbar, or cross beam (of an H), the bowl (of a p or b), counter (of an a or b), flag (a flourished stroke common in black letter type), the hook or finial (of some t’s), inlines (which resemble carved strokes inside the lines), ink traps (notches created to prevent ink bleeds at predictable points on the letter), the joint or juncture (of an R or a Y), the link and the loop (of a g), the spur (of many G’s), the stroke (the main lines of a letter), swash (an exaggerated stroke), swing (the diagonal link of some g’s), and the vertex (of, say, a V).

ink-trap, dot, spur

An experienced typophile can also distinguish between, and speak of, a descended or base-lined J, a one-story or a two-story g, a crossed, joined or rounded W, and even a round as opposed to a super ellipse or obround (elongated with straight sections) O. Even as seemingly simple a thing as a terminal, the end of a non-seriffed stroke, can be characterized as an acute terminal, a ball terminal, a beak terminal, concave, convex, flared, hooked, horizontal, lachrymal (or teardrop) painted, rounded, sheared, straight, or a tapered, terminal.

Serifs were forever defined for me as ‘the little feet on the letters’ by my first type teacher, P. Lyn Middleton. The classification of the innumerable variations in type design that exist today begins with the existence or non-existence of these little feet, which have existed as a crucial detail on most Roman letterforms for a little over 2000 years. Curiously the word itself has a short history. It was probably a back formation from the word sans-serif, which first appears in print in 1830, when typefounder (a designer and producer of metal types) Vincent Figgins published his Specimens of Printing Type. Sans, a French word forever, has been an English word since Middle English times:

“… Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything
.”

—William Shakespeare, As You Like It, 1599 or early 1600.

The French sounding serif may have come from the Dutch schreef, “a line” or “a stroke”, from schrijven “to write”, and from the Latin scribere. Type without serifs occurred in Roman times, but it was rare and is seldom seen. In the early nineteenth century sans serif typefaces re-emerged, perhaps as an evolutionary branch away from the Egyptian or slab-serif fonts that were popular at the time. (The fat slab serifs may have become so ungainly that someone at a type foundry, where new letters were carved from steel, decided to simply and literally chop them off.) At first these new letters were described as grotesque or grotesk types, perhaps because they seemed incomplete and ugly, and these terms are still among those used to describe sans serifs today.

so many serifs

The French, meanwhile, tended to use the word antique to refer to sans-serif type, and this word has found its way into English, in, for example, the typeface name Antique Olive. The word gothic is also sometimes used to describe a sans serif, and the terms Gothic and Doric, with capital letters, are now used to refer to the square-stroked sans serif variations of Japanese characters.

Sans serif type faces vary tremendously, and are further categorized as geometric (for example, Futura), monoline (Akzidenz Grotesk), rounded (Frankfurter), humanist (Gill Sans) and neo grotesque (Helvetica).

Broadly speaking, there are two styles of serifs, unilateral serifs, which break from the stem in only one direction, and the more common bilateral serifs, which break from the stem in two directions. These can be further characterized by a surprising number of terms: type designers speak of abrupt serifs (that break abruptly from the stem at an angle), adnate serifs (which emerge from the stem gradually and more organically), bifircated serifs (which appear to curl away from a split in the stem), bracketed or fillet serifs (with a curved connection between the serif and the stem), cupped serifs (which form a concave curve or ‘suction cup’ at the end of the stem), scutulate serifs (diamond shaped), finial serifs (with a somewhat tapered curved end), foot serifs (which rest firmly on the baseline), hairline serifs (hairline thin foot serifs), slab or Egyptian serifs (thick serifs set at right angles to the stem), square serifs (square-shaped slab serifs), straight serifs (which are thin but not hairline serifs) and wedge serifs (simple wedge-shaped or triangular serifs).

[Paul Dean teaches graphic design at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. His hobby is his freeform blog: www.djmisc.com. This is the second in a five-part, quick-fire type terminology tour de force. The entire series will be available as a lovely printable PDF, for reference.]

Read Part 1Part 3Part 4Part 5


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  1. Great article. I love learning about the origins of type.

  2. Dave
    Me too. Paul has done a great job.

  3. Yes he has!

    I just noticed the header image as well. Very nice! Did you do that?

  4. Dave
    The header image was sent to me by another iLT reader, Vlad. He wrote about in his post, Typographic Jargon.

  5. That header is one of my favorites so far!

    Great great article, really detailed! Almost too many terms to take in at one time!

    I’m really looking forward to the PDF’s. Great job again Paul.

  6. Amazing. My head is swimming with type terms. Haha.

    Thanks Paul.

    Also, the header is pure awesome, good job Vlad!

  7. Great article! I didn’t know the history of sans came from the Dutch :-) Very much like the header.

  8. Wow, so much to take in. I think I’ll let that marinate and reread it tomorrow so it all sinks in a little better.

  9. Mesiu

    Very very very good article, again.
    Where do you get all that information? Is it in your head already or did you have a particular book on that one?

  10. Christapher

    Dearest iLT,

    Thank you so much for your wonderful website and amazing articles. A couple semesters ago when I too my first Intro to Communication Design class at the University of North Texas the professor, Eric Ligon, spoke of the excitement he got from kerning 8pt Ms. Eves. And while I had no idea at the time what that meant, it excited me too. Since then I have been reading anything about typography I can get my hands on (including every back article on this site) and check back twice daily for more great articles. Thanks so much for your work and all the information you provide!

    I do have one question though, what is it that makes Gill Sans a ‘humanist sans serif’? One of the main things that stuck with me about how to identify a humanist typeface is the angled ‘e,’ which I didn’t see in the sample you liked to. What am I missing? Thanks again!

    Christapher

  11. Katja Bak

    brilliant. i love to know the nitty gritty of type - not just what looks nice where. the names of all these minute details, the rules and history of it. very inspiring. very. but cody is right, almost too many terms at once! i too am looking forward to that pdf version for my files. you’ve done a great job paul.

    i’m still no where near the experience or knowledge of most of the people posting and commenting here, but again, it really inspires me.

  12. Great article, great header, great use of my thursday evening. Thank you John, Paul, and now Vlad! I am really looking forward to the PDF book.

  13. In the ‘real world’, I feel like such a nerd sometimes. Most (90%) of my face-to-face friends are not designers or artists or anyone who can really understand my love for the beauty I uncover in the world around me. This site is such a guilty a pleasure.

    That header rocks! Gives me that excited about type feeling I had in Intro to Type class.

  14. The bit labeled ‘shoulder’ is more often called a ‘join’ or ‘branch’. The shoulder I would call the part to the right of that.

  15. Thank you everyone for your positivity!

    As for the previous comment: William, you are right. Good eye. The shoulder is more like a shoulder than a join.

    And Christapher, of a few posts before, I think the humanism of Gil Sans comes from the complexity of the curves, it is more inviting than earlier, simpler geometric sans serifs. There have actually been two separate humanist eras, that of the serifs and that of the sans serifs, which took place in the mid to late 1400s and 1900s respectively.

  16. Well spotted, William. Thanks. Now fixed.

  17. Thats some good terminology :)

  18. Typeted

    Tell me you did not just make a plural with an apostrophe.

    “the ear (of some g’s)”

    G’s?

    C’mon, gs is correct even if it looks odd. Plurals never are made with an ’s.

    Thanks!

  19. Typeted
    The apostrophe is used there not to denote possession or plurality, but simply to save confusion. In this instance both “gs” and “g’s” is acceptable.

  20. Very good article again.
    Pedro

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