Letterpress Lingo

Hi Everybody,

I need help with a personal project. I’ve recently learned that printing, particularly letterpress printing, has coined quite a few phrases that we still use today. Words like ‘stereotype’, ‘cliche’, and ‘out of sorts’. I’m hoping all of you press experts can throw some more of these terms at me so I can begin this project of mine. I promise I’ll post a photo of the final product.


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mind your p’s and q’s

upper case/lower case

I wonder about “cut to the chase”.

I think that’s from the movies, not printing — the chase scene was always the most exciting part so “Cut to the chase” gets to the best part.


Hi, Bob—I’ve heard that too, but still I wonder…I don’t think I’ve ever seen the phrase in a source that predates movies, and I don’t know if it’s even sound old printing advice. But I can imagine the phrase being appropriated by the public from printing if it were a technical instruction little used and not understood in context.

Best, Brian

I think you’re right about the chase thing. I guess I was thinking there was more…

I don’t think it originated with printing but “pi”, meaning “jumbled” or “disorganized” is certainly a printing term that’s used in other contexts — “pied piper”, “pi-bald horse”, etc. refers to the sort of random patchwork or color distribution of those individuals.


get the lead out. Dick G.

hell box
type lice

Funny you mentioned “coin a phrase” — letterpress quoins are used to lock your type into your chase..so you are essentially quoining a phrase every time you print with text.

How about these
hot off the press
sort this out
wrong end of the stick
and for our British friends come a cropper

Sorry - “wrong end of the stick” predates printing. Medieval toilet humor… (I am given to understand that sticks were used before toilet paper was invented)

It’s ‘crapper’ for the Brits, not ‘cropper’. One’s going for a ‘crap’. The man who invented the flush-toilet was called Thomas Crapper.

Here’s a delightful little gem I found in the “Printer’s Carnival and
other poems” by James Kelly, published by Love & Duncan in 1875.

The printer is a curious man—
A wondrous mixture he,
And full of contradictories,
As ye shall quickly see.

His personal appearance does
Not strike you with surprise,
Because he has his Roman (n)”o’s”
Right underneath his “i’s.”

Although his ” frame ” be no great ” bulk,”
His meat he always takes,
But is not very fond of ” pie,”
Though lots of it he makes.

He never ” poaches,” like a cook,
Yet he the hunt could grace—
He always takes his ” shooting-stick “
When he attends the ” chase.”

And he, though ignorant of law,
Could take the lawyer’s place,
For he can practise at the ” bar “
And look well to his ” case.”

Though not dishonestly inclined,
Or given to maraud,
We find he often pillages
When he gets out of ” quad.”

He is not an offensive man
Because he wields a ” stick,”
Although, whene’er he uses it,
He still keeps out the ” nick.”

He at the ” lock-up ” soon arrives,
When trying to ” impose,”
And yet is a religious man
For he to ” chapel” goes.

Although he seems a dangerous blade
When brandishing a knife,
He only ” cuts a skeleton,”
And takes away no life.

‘Tis said he cannot sharpen tools
Like some apprentice lads,
But he at times can ” set” ” old saws,”
And often “sets” the “ads” (adze).

He is a miser, for we find
He often locks up ” coins,”
And, like a locomotive, he
Is forced to ” run on lines.”

When he is in the best of health
He’s often “out of sorts;”
And though he oft composes lines
The muse he seldom courts.

He has on hand sufficient ” caps “
To start a hatter’s shop;
And makes up ” braces ” with a dash
To give his talents scope.

‘Tis true he naturally shrinks
From actions, fell and dire,
Yet has been known to take a ” stick “
And set ” A House on Fire.”

He is a sinner (all are so
By Adam eating apple),
And he may be a ” Prod ” although
The ” Father of the Chapel.”

Let adverse Fortune follow him
Till he pays Nature’s debt,
Hope will remain for him alone
When all his ” stars ” are ” set”

Thomas, I know the difference between a toilet ( crapper) and a printing press (cropper). I was told by an old printer that if you chased a misfeed and lossed a finger to a press they said you came a cropper. I must admit I don’t know what they call a misfeed in a toilet. HowardH

scum bucket

Poor form(e)?

Great project. Am on the same line of thought! how does ‘scum bucket’ fit in? something to do with the scum from lead?

I don’t think that “sort this out” really applies. Even after commercial typesetting had drifted away from handset and machine composition, proofs of type set on phototypositors (the younger crowd probably has no idea what those were), the proofs were still refered to as “galleys.”

Yes I heard catching your hand in a Cropper & Charlton press was ‘Coming a Cropper’ as well, true or not I like it.

Very much hoping not to catch anything in mine though.

Here’s a picture of mine before it was restored, we don’t see enough pictures of presses on this forum in my opinion, I’d love to see more of everyones hardware ;-)

image: peerless1.JPG


Thom crapper ,re invented the flush toilet but held the first patent , coming a cropper is an old fashioned term for being thrown over a horses head as opposed to rearward off its back .
How about Ringing the changes Is that a campanology term or printing derived ?

Hello all the wise

Just a notation. When the members of a list have nothing else to do but start discussing definitions of terms, that is usually an indication of the death knell of an online list. Like the end of its usefulness. Really. Time proven.


Many of the words used in printing came from the monasteries. Some I can think of include fount (font), chapel and quad (quadrat or quadrangle?). There should be many more, but it will take me some time to turn over my memory banks.

I do not remember which is which of friar and abbot, am not even sure if I have the correct words.


Gerald, it might also be some recent posts by ‘newbies’ who are using very odd terminology, prompting posts on lingo. I don’t think the group is necessarily doomed ;)



Probably, but I am still wondering about the meaning of the message that accompanied the notice of the Briar Press recess.


my favourite part of a frame is THE CLEAN LIFT at the end
and lead poisoning psychosis, of course
I learned on an Albion colombian and used lots of talcum to keep it happy.
there are tens if not hundreds of phrases from letterpress but because I worked with lead I can’t recall but two of’m
I attribute SPACE CADET to apprentices because they use all the spaces instead of (I cannot remember the correct term) for the hinging fillers or blocks/quads etc
S.N.A.F.U = Situation normal all font upright before the army got hold of it & Font up beyond all reassembling - FUBAR (when some oser apprentice has put away the type WILLY-NiLLY - HA!

I am very economical setter & like to compose left to right then right to left boustrephredron style, so the eye doesn’t have to travel all the way left for a new line. this way I also have fun with spaces - & I STILL CAN’T REMEMBER THE NAME OF THE EXPANDER DEVICE ! PLEASE PROMPT ME! RUN OUT OF LOWER CASE, AS I AM RAMBLING
not my usual business card
hi rob Lamb at The Gums Press

down on bended knees

Just so things don’t get lost or changed in translation, and having done two tours in Nam -

SNAFU is “Situation normal, all f*#ked up”

FUBAR is “F*#cked up beyond all repair”



Yes, Dick you probably do look like you would. ; )


Thanks for all the fish.

I don’t know if anyone mentioned it because of how obvious it is, but Uppercase and Lowercase also have the lineage in letterpress because Majuscule letters were kept in the upper case and minuscule letters were kept int the lower one.

‘out of sorts’ ? although in today’s parlance means ‘unwell’ or a bit ‘off colour’
Am delighted with the poem


Here’s one I hear occasionally.

A superior figure or letter that does not range at bottom and is used for contractions - thus Mr or A1 (where the r and 1 are sited alongside the top of the letter).
In today’s usage :What a cockup ! describing disarray or a plan that has gone very wrong.
PS: thanks to the definition from 1888 on Briar Press.


image: jackass impo-sition.jpg

jackass impo-sition.jpg

to all

It is difficult to be certain of where words originated; some of printing undoubtedly were “borrowed” from the monasteries. Anyone know which is which of “friar” and “abbot”? Hint, I think they are something to do with “colour”.

I always understood that the word “quoin” referred to the twin stepped (usually wooden) frame which held the barrel of muzzle-loading cannons, allowing the elevation of the barrel to be changed. The later screw-thread one-piece quoin is nothing like the original two-part device used by printers, except that is serves a similar purpose.

“Quad” is obvious. I have written previously that the British and U.S.A. ideas of right-hand and left-hand quadding on linotypes shows a difference of opinion!


to all

Some may think me “trying”, or “even more trying”.

It seems that the word “friar” was used for a lightly-inked part of the printed area, and “monk” for a part which had had too much ink applied to the type. But how to remember which is which?


There are many supposed explanations of the terms, but the way I was taught to remember is: Friars lived frugally (needing little ink), and monks tended to live a bit to excess (liking too much ink).


And you are a ‘dab hand’ if you hand ink your type evenly without filling in the e’s, g’s etc with two dabbers.
From before rollers were invented.

Buried somewhere around here is a little booklet that is a dictionary of printing terms. I think it was part of a series of books put out by the ITU early in the 20th century. I’ll be sure to put it in a place of prominence if I ever run across it again.

I just looked at a Dictionary of Printing Terms in the back of a 1929 book titled Type Faces from Frederic Nelson Phillips, Inc. of NYC. It is far less comprehensive as does not even include “monks” or “friars”. I perused it just a bit ago and found a minor revelation (for me).

I try to maintain traditional practices and terminology and became kind of a snob about the word “broadsheet” a few decades ago and chose to use it instead of the more often used term “broadside.” Somewhere along the line I had been told that broadsheet was the correct term for printers to use and that “broadside” was really more of a nautical term.

Well, lo and behold, this 1929 book does list “broadside” and defines it as:
Formerly, a large sheet printed in display type on one side only, but now generally including large sheets printed on both sides, each fold being a complete page, the inside only being a true broadside; a broad-sheet.

Of interest is the fact that “broadsheet” or “broad-sheet” is not even listed!


“Sop Your Balls” a master would say to an apprentice to charge his in ink balls. on an upward ,fortunately we have
gummy bear ink balls these days and the bugs like them as much as composition rollers. yum

Interesting.. does it define a Work n Turn?

“Work and Turn” is a method of printing that utilizes only 1 plate or 1 set of plates to produce a 2 sided piece. It is a cost savings measure to printers as they only have to produce 1/2 the amount of plates usually needed to achieve a 2 sided finished piece.

Visualise or obtain a sheet of paper. Draw or imagine a line from top to bottom exactly down the middle of the sheet. The bottom of the sheet will be your “gripper” area, or the edge of the sheet that enters the press first and is held till the sheet exits the press. This is important because it will determine where the images are to be placed.

Next, imagine or draw a large number “1” on the right half of the sheet and a large number “2” on the left side of the sheet. This is now your layout for a “Work and Turn”. The “1” represents side 1 or the “front” image, the “2” represents the “back” image. Turn the sheet over keeping the gripper edge at the bottom. If you were to print the same image as you did on the other side of the sheet, with a “1” on the right and a “2” on the left, you wil have just done a “Work and Turn”. The “2” will be on 1 side of 1 half the sheet with a “1” directly on the other side and visa versa.

From the PrintUSA Glossary: http://www.printusa.com/printing_glossary.htm

Work and turn: Printing one side of a sheet and turning it over from left to right ussing the same side guides and plate for the second side.

[Copied from what is available on Internet.]




In prepress and printing, an imposition or layout in which one plate contains all the images (pages) to be printed on both sides of a sheet. Once one side of a job has been printed, the pile of printed sheets is turned over, the edge of the sheet that was the gripper edge for the first side becoming the back edge for the second side. After printing, the sheet is cut in half, yielding two identical units. Work-and-tumble layouts, with their use of different gripper edges, may have registration problems. See also Work-and-Turn and Work-and-Twist. Also known as work-and-flop and work-and-roll.

[Copied from what is available on Internet.]

‘A Composition Manual’, a textbook published by the Printing Industry of America, describes Work-and-Tumble thusly:

In this operation all the pages for the signature are imposed and locked together in one form, and the same form is printed on both sides of the sheet, as in work-and-turn printing, but its point of difference lies in the fact that, between runs, the sheet is turned side-for-side instead of end-for-end. During the second run the top edge of the sheet becomes the new gripper edge, although the side guide edge does not change. Unless the stock is very accurately squared and trimmed, a loss of register at the bottom guides is unavoidable. For this reason the work-and-tumble method should not be used unless it becomes necessary. Some pressmen shift the position of the page forms on the bed of the press instead of tumbling the sheet in order to overcome the problem of register. Work-and tumble printing is known by some printers as work-and-flop.

Work-and-turn on a cylinder press with right and left hand guides are guided on both sides. As the sheet is turned over the guide remains on the same side of the sheet. This is not possible on a Vandercook, and impractical for a platen press as they both have fixed, rather than push or pull guides. On these presses it is most imperative that the paper be accurately cut and trimmed as the job will have to register to one guide only.

Actually, you can print a job work and turn on a handfed, but it does require feeding to the right corner rather than the left. This can be a bit difficult, but once you are used to the idea, and if the paper feeds well, it is a valuable tool in the printers toolbox.

You would, of course, need to remove your left hand pin and set a right hand pin after turnover.

and it goes on and on


One meaning has a nautical origin. In the old sailing ship men-of-war, many cannon stuck out from the side of the ship. When the ship could be maneuvered to bring all the cannon on one side to bear on the target, the first salvo was all cannon fired at once. It was a broadside.

In colonial America, Ben Franklin and others like him, would protest against King George and the colonial governors by printing their protests and attaching them to the village sign posts, and perhaps distributing them to each village tavern. This was called “posting a broadside”. There is a good miniature piece or art depicting this on a 1973 U.S. postage stamp.
It may have been called a broadside after the cannon fire on the ship. They were taking a shot at King George. My analogy is pure speculation.

Today many young printers speak of a single sheet as a broadside. I think it is a term used in printing classes by teachers who do not know the origin of the term. Does some teacher want to take a shot at that?

Be aware when starting Work & Turn jobs.The stock should be squared before running. If the paper has a noticeable “wire side” and a “Felt side” Only 1/2 of your job will be on the correct (felt) side. This is most important on uncoated cover stock. Also make sure the stock is not watermarked.

Scum Bucket = Skim bucket when re-melting lead you need to skim the dross (impurities) off the top of the molten lead, usually into a bucket.

Printers Devil= union apprentice