Common Language

Because we are either blessed or cursed with the art or profession of Letterpress Printing, techniques we’ll probably always argue about, but the need for a common language is the most important.

It is wonderful to read the questions in the various discussion categories but more than several statements keep appearing, which are like fingernails on a blackboard to me. For example…

“I’m PRESSING this job.”

“I was trying to PRESS a job.”

“We PRESSED several sheets.”

How about…

“I’m PRINTING this job.”

“I was trying to PRINT a job.”

“We PRINTED several sheets.”
or “We pulled several impressions.”

When I take shirts to the laundry they starch and PRESS them - and at restaurant I might order PRESSED duck - and face it, that hunk of iron in the corner is not a presser it is a PRINTING PRESS.

Come on, if we’re all going to play the same game, how about using the correct and common language of the printing industry.


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Amen. You have my vote.

“Pressing” bothers me, too, Chuck, but one of the things that has made English such a widely used and enduring language — with more words than any other language — is its willingness to absorb words from everything it touches and to adapt to the whims of its users. I will probably never use “pressing” to mean “printing,” but then I never thought I’d use “text” as a verb.


Let’s forget about absorbing words from whatever…I just bought a recently-published text book (I won’t mention the title, to protect the innocent[?]). How about my great-grandkids calling them “type drawers,” “galley trays” “riglets?
Our trade is so rich in history and tradition. LET’S LEAVE IT THAT WAY!
Recently I read a discussion topic here on Briar Press…about “some one wanting to re-arrange the lay of the type case (after all these years).”How about re-arranging your computer keyboard, or driving on the other side of the road???
May I repeat this again?…
Our trade is so rich in history and tradition. LET’S LEAVE IT THAT WAY!

When i first started printing in my mom’s basement i got really busy and my mom wanted to learn to print and help me, so i taught her, we printed for around 20 years together, she always asked me to get me the black paint, i don’t think she ever called it ink, i learned to live with it just like pressing, it bothers me also but at least we know what they are talking about. Dick G.

There are a couple of modern accessories I need to buy, namely something really flat to lock in the chase, to stick thingies on, and at that point I will print a lovely tongue-in-cheek broadside (using perhaps Ariel Bold) declaring:

“The day my shop became a studio”

I really have no problem with the newly adapted terms that folks use, but I will likely remain a
“Letterpress printer with a shop out in the garage”.

…and declare:

“A font of type is something that can be spilled on the floor”.
..(and that’s an original)

Old school, baby, and I intend to keep it that way, even after I could be referred to as “a letterpresser with a base in the chase out in the studio”.


As a follow-up to my last comment, I just found out that “text” was first used as a verb by a fellow named William Shakespeare in 1599. In his play “Much Ado About Nothing,” the following exchange takes place:

DON PEDRO: But when shall we set the savage bull’s horns on the sensible Benedick’s head?

CLAUDIO: Yea, and text underneath, ‘Here dwells Benedick the married man’?

Does anyone have access to the Oxford English Dictionary? I’m wondering when “press” was first used to mean “print.”


Then I am reminded of the Beatrice Warde quote wherein it is referred to as:




So my idea of calling it a “shop”, is probably irrelevant and not so “Old school” after all.

Then there is Chaucer:

“Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is chaugne
Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem, and yet thei spake hem so.”

So change is bound to come…but I digress.


Thanks, Dave, for the quotation from Chaucer. It reminds us of how recently spelling has been standardized in our language, let alone meaning.


chuck the printer, This topic brings to mind the discussion
on 3d printing back in july. Evidently it really does not matter what we call things anymore. james

“The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”
— Geoffrey Chaucer

“The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”
— Geoffrey Chaucer

love the response, I too, will be a letterpressman without a studio, with a shop in the garage, ink under my nails and constantly reminding myself of picas, points, quoins, chases, furniture, line gauges, slugs, leads, quads, bastard measure and a whole bunch of words that are the nomenclature of the real printing world.

This has been one of the most satisfying threads to read. I wish we could render more philosophy about books and printing.
But dickg’s remembrance of his mother’s learning the trade and working with him for 20 years touched my heart. I have the identical memory of my own mother learning about printing from me, then giving me the same support. Wish I had another 20 years with her and me at the case. In the struggle to earn bread for the table we could not fully understand how urgently precious each moment truly was.

Lovers of type forms are by nature protectors, preservers, and restorers of the sacred vessel to our language.
Thanks for the “listen”.
Wm. J. Murray

I had to keep correcting my students this past semester in the “Letterpress for the 21st Century” course that i teach. They kept referring to the presses as “letterpresses”, and type cases as drawers. I sometimes gave up just to move things along, but it still bothered me.

What bothers me more is how people refer to typefaces as “fonts”. Come on! The typeface is the style, and the font is the amount and collection of a typeface. I usually don’t let it bother me too much when people flub terminology, but in this instance it bothers me because there is so much that goes into typography, and it demands us to pay attention and appreciate it’s history.

The other struggle i commonly had with my students was to get them to use their pica sticks (or line gauge)! Once they used them, they worked so much faster. It is such a simple measuring system that i hope will never be lost. It makes locking up posters and everything else so much easier.

This is a wonderful line of comment here. I do have a studio but that’s because my wife and I (me-photographer she printmaker) are involved in art as well. But one half is a printery and will always be so. A Heidelberg and couple of C&P’s sit imposingly in the room surrounded by cabinets of type (in fonts) and lockup stone. “I’m the printer and thats the press”! I think it is important to preserve and carry forward our rich tradition practically and in our language. I love our system of measure too. So visual and accurate. I have heard pica rule and line gauge. I do love to hear all the stories of beginning printers (I go back to trade training 1960’s ) and think of all the people in garages basements and sheds and think this is great to hear. I think the language will catch up - but one thing I do detest is Laser printers inkjet printers or just printers. I much prefer output devices. I’m the printer!

Pica and “fonts”

Being European and a creature of habit, I tend to use the metric system to measure and construct layouts in InDesign. Most often, that means that I’m working with one system for the page dimensions and spacing between elements, and another, not easily convertable, system for type. However, my current graphic-design-professors urge students to use pica. After all, we know from setting type, that a single measurement for spacing and content makes our lives a lot easier.

The pica is very much alive, even in the digital workflow, and I do find it odd that rulers with pica are not more common in Graphic Design classrooms…

I try to keep my terminology straight, having professors early in my education that had traditional printing and typesetting backgrounds probably helped. Hearing a printing press referred to as a “printer” makes me laugh, in a “you poor misinformed fool” kinda way.

But, I see where they are coming from, as those of us who grew up without movable type, and otherwise unfamiliar with printing, have only come across these terms applied to newer technology where it is easy to misinterpret their actual meaning.

The other day, after reading one of these debates, I thought about an example: how I had ended up wrongly using the word “font”, instead of “typeface”… I have a theory on how it all went wrong.

Upon going digital, it made a lot of sense for the foundries to keep the term. They were still aiming at the same audience.

The “unit” in which a typeface was sold or kept was a “font”, so in the digital world, a font was the file containing the typeface. That file was the unit you purchased and stored. Easy to understand, less confusion for old printers shifting to desktop publishing. The foundries were still labelling things as they had always done… You can look at a typeface, and buy it in a font.

Then came my generation, suddenly everyone, and their uncle or kid sister, had a computer and a bunch of typefaces. No longer any need for a shop with cabinets holding tons and tons of sorted lead. And ironically, that was when things got messy.

On the computer, we only saw the “Fonts” folder, or the “Fonts” drop-down menu in a piece of software. I’m guessing no-one at Microsoft or Apple knew the difference either, or the drop-down menus in their software would have been labelled “Typefaces” and maybe this could all have been avoided.

In any case, I know I didn’t see the word “Font” as a file containing a typeface. During my trial-and-error approach to learning how to work a computer, I saw that after selecting a piece of text in MS Word and choosing something different from the “Fonts” menu, the style of letters changed. The subsequent reasoning was that the word “font” must be the name applied to a style.

Interestingly, I can remember being 6-7 years old and going through the entire list, looking for ones I liked, my journey towards Graphic Design might have started right there.

Now, twenty or so years later, almost no-one is bothering to correct us on that wrong conclusion and the scenario keeps repeating itself… luckily some of us figure it out on our own, haha


See, where I come from “unit” and “package” means something altogether different.


When language changes, I tend to ask whether there has been a reduction in what can be expressed or an increase, or if it’s just a change.

In the case of “font” where “typeface” is meant, there is clearly a reduction of information - and one that is relevant even when the font has become a menu item. As Donald G K and kimaboe have noted earlier in this thread, a font has always indicated what it is you have (or, if a typefounder, are selling). As such it is necessarily finite - one body size, only so many of each sort, etc. The term extends naturally to matrix fonts for linecasters and typecasters (e.g., a font of 12 point Linotype mats may give me Roman and Italic and as much of each as I care to cast, but it isn’t going to give me 10 point). It extended seamlessly into phototypesetting. It extends naturally into digital type as well, because one important finite aspect remains: the sorts provided. That’s something that is always going to stay finite. In a way, given the increasing need for international communication (and thus the increased chance that your font won’t have the character you need) the finite nature of any given font may be more important now than it was before. A font is never going to be a typeface (and if you force the one word to mean both, you’ve lost some expressive capability).

But “printer” is a different case. For one thing, to argue that “printer” in the sense of “computer printer” is a change in the language is about 140 years too late. It’s easy to find references to it in this sense from at least the 1870s (telegraph printers). Unfortunately, we forget today how important, and extensive, the teleprinter networks were.

But the sense of “printer” and “printing” that we use now was itself a change in the language. The earliest citation I can find in the Oxford English Dictionary for our sense of it dates to 1504, soon after the death of Caxton. The root meanings have to do with deep three-dimensional impression (citations in the OED back to 1300 for wax seals, with many others having to do with coining). Just imagine the discussions that might have happened if there’d been an Internet in 1504 - outrage at all of those followers of Caxton who were calling themselves “printers” - why, their “printing” has no depth at all; it’s as thin as paper! :-)

I doubt that any expressive ability was lost in the 16th century when “printing” was given a new meaning as something done with ink and paper, or in the 19th century, as something done by a machine on an electric network; I doubt that anything will be lost in the 21st as new variations (e.g., 3-D printing as a popular term for stereolithography) come into use.

So different changes would seem to call for different responses. (A “letterpress,” for example, is an 18th/19th century letter copying press for duplicating handwritten correspondence and records, and as such usefully distinguished from a printing press. :-)

My apologies for the length of this note, but this history of words and their changes is fun.

Dr. David M. MacMillan


good point, although one could argue that if that specific meaning is the first thing that you think of upon hearing the word “package”, or “unit”, that it says something about your mind, right? ;)


very interesting insights, especially with regards to the initial meaning of printing as it relates to making a physical impression, don’t tell the Kiss Fan Club.