The Neatest Little Paper Ever Read ®

Issue 974

(Continued from front page)

• A particular typeface is called a “font” from the French word “fonte” meaning “to melt” or “to pour out.” This is the same root word for “fountain,” “foundry,” and “fondue.” In the early days of printing, and later when typewriters were invented, the letters were made of metal, with molten metal being poured into molds to create individual letters in an entire collection of moveable type.

• Printers kept their different fonts inside cases. Capital letters were put in the top part of the case, leading to the terms “upper case” and “lower case.”

• The exclamation point comes from the Latin word “io,” meaning “an exclamation of joy.” It was written vertically within a single space, with a lowercase I over a lowercase O. Eventually the O was abbreviated to a dot and the exclamation point was born!


• In Latin, when they wrote a query, they’d finish it with the word “questio” which was abbreviated “qo.” Eventually, they put the abbreviation into a single space, with the lowercase “q” on top of the lowercase “O.” As time went on, people made the “q” a tailed loop, and the O turned into a dot. This turned into the question mark.

• The tilde is a squiggly line ~ whose name comes from the Latin “titulus” meaning “title.” The tilde means “approximately”: ~42 means “approximately 42.”

• In the Roman language, “libra pondo” meant one pound in weight, where “libra” meant “scales” and “pondo” came from “pendere” meaning “to weigh.” The Romans abbreviated “libra pondo” as “lb” with a line drawn horizontally through the two letters at the top. The little line is called a “tittle,” which indicates an abbreviation. Eventually, it became easier just to write the symbol “#” instead of spelling out the two letters lb and drawing a line through them. Today we still abbreviate pound as “lb” and the hashtag # originally designated weight in pounds.

• The term “libra pondo” expanded into other languages, becoming the French “livre,” the Italian “lira,” the British “pound,” and the German “pfund.” Charlemagne decreed that a single pound of silver should be minted into 240 coins, and today Britain still counts its money in pounds sterling, abbreviated as the stylized L that hearkens back to libra pondo: £ with the “L” standing for “libra” and the tittle indicating an abbreviation.

• The # symbol is known variously as the pound sign, the number sign, or a hashtag, but its official name is “octothorpe.” The “octo” denotes the eight points, and “thorpe” comes from the Old English word meaning village. This is because the symbol resembles eight villager’s fields surrounding a village square.


• Greek and Roman merchants shipped goods such as grain, olives, wine, and oil in vase-like vessels called “amphora.” An amphora indicated not only the container but also the weight of the goods inside the container. The word derives from the Greek terms “amphi” meaning “on both sides,” indicating the two handles on the container, and “phoreus” meaning “carrier.” It was customary to abbreviate any word with the first letter of that word combined with a tittle to indicate an abbreviation. So the abbreviation for how many amphorae of goods had been delivered would have looked like this: ā. Through sloppy handwriting done in a rush, it eventually started to be written as @. The @ sign became universally used by merchants meaning “at the rate of,” such as: “John bought 13 kegs of apples @ $20 per keg.”

• In 1971 when an engineer was working on developing the world’s first e-mail system, he needed a symbol to separate the name of the sender from the name of the system. He chose the “@” symbol because it was not commonly used. The symbol doesn’t have a name other than “the ‘at’ symbol” or “the commercial ‘at’” but in other languages it’s referred to as “elephant’s trunk” in Swedish; “monkey’s tail” in Dutch; “spider monkey” in German; and “strudel” in Hebrew.

• The Latin word for “and” is “et.” Scribes abbreviated “et” with a stylized rounded capital E that looked like a backwards 3, plus an overlapping small case letter “t.” This symbol eventually morphed into the ampersand symbol: “&”. The word “ampersand” derives from the Latin phrase “per se” meaning “by itself” combined with the word “and.” Throughout the 1800s, the ampersand sign was treated as the 27th letter of the alphabet. Schoolchildren reciting the alphabet would follow “X Y Z” with “and, per se, And” denoting the symbol &.