The History of Font Names.

Tobias Frere-Jones, a type designer (creator of the Gotham typeface) who teaches at Yale, has posted on his blog about how the names of typefaces developed:

For centuries, punchcutters would develop their style within a narrow group of genres. There would be only one style of roman or italic, even if that style had been refined and focused over a span of years. The name only needed to pin down the remaining variable, the size. […]

In Bodoni’s epic Manuale Tipografico of 1818, over one hundred romans and italics are shown with the name of a city as a kind of nickname, though the real name was still a size and a number. Trieste is really Ascendonica (22 point) No. 9, Palermo is Sopracanoncino (28 point) No. 3, and so on.

Throughout the Industrial Revolution, a new market for advertising drove typefounders to expand their inventories. The established vocabulary soon proved inadequate — a predictable result, given novelty was such a conscious goal. Founders needed to coin new terms, to signal the unique aspect of a new design. But customers would need to understand this new jargon, so it behooved the founders to establish and maintain some equivalence in new terms. […]

By the middle of the nineteenth century, names for the more common designs had settled into a reliable syntax of base words and modifiers, with numbers appended as necessary. The result often seemed more like an ingredient list than a recognizable name. Just as “scrambled eggs and bacon” isn’t really the name of a dish, but a tally of the items involved, “Gothic Condensed No. 7” is a (hopefully unambiguous) report of attributes. […]

A concocted name, the next stage of evolution, appears in the same specimen with the design “Graphotype”. […]

There are, obviously, many more details at the link, which I encourage you to visit. (If you’d like to read it on a site with bells, whistles, and ads, here‘s the Slate version.) I found it via MetaFilter, and I can’t resist quoting the comment (from a 2012 thread) that supplied the title of that post:

> “I always thought Garamond sounded like a weapon name.”

In the fourth year of the reign of Emperor Trajan, my legions were attacked by the Calibri in the hills of Helvetica. The canny tribesmen made their assault before we could reach and lay siege to the city of Gentium, thereby rendering useless our trebuchets and high towers.

My couriers soon reported that the Calibri, as was their normal habit, had assembled a force of light cavalry, clad in copperplate gothic and armed with arials, while also bearing short onyx used for close-in fighting. They relied on speed and maneuverability in the rough terrain, using their arials to fire flaming caslons into our midst and then retreating.

A generation ago, this tactic would have wrought grievous damage. But by the grace of the gods, this was a more modern era, and I was able to deploy a force of heavy infantry, armored in stout verdana and armed with the new garamonds. No cavalry, however fleet, can stand long against a trained force armed with garamonds.

So this I say to the fools who have said that our armies have fewer meliors and sylfaens than they have at any time since the war with the Lucida Sans. We have no need of such toys now. Those are the weapons of the old Rome – a century old style.

And these are the Times New Roman.
posted by kyrademon at 2:33 PM on October 23, 2012


  1. David Marjanović says

    That comment is wonderful. 🙂

  2. Hilarious. But even 48-point trebuchets would be absolutely useless against the impregnable baselines and towering glyphs of Gentium. Everybody knows it, from Cambria to Georgia.

  3. Stephen Bruce says

    Calibri seems so good as the name of a barbarian tribe that I had to check that it wasn’t. I should have realized it’s from caliber.

    I’ve been pronouncing it /ˈkælɪbri/, but according to this discussion the designers pronounce it /kəˈliːbri/. In Italian the stress is on the first syllable, though apparently second-syllable stress is an former variant.

  4. Stephen Bruce says

    Like a lot of the more interesting Romance words, caliber seems to come from Arabic, in this case, according to the AHD, “from Arabic qālib, qālab, mold, shoe tree, from Greek kālapous, shoemaker’s last : kālon, wood + pous, foot; see ped- in Indo-European roots.”

  5. Interesting indeed — thanks for sharing it!

  6. I love that MeFi comment from kyrademon too.

    Over the last few days on Twitter I’ve seen a lifetime’s worth of font-based puns as a result of this typo in a CNN headline.

  7. To me, Garamond is a character from Proust. “Ah, M. le duc de Garamond…”
    Or Trollope: “Lord Garamond has left his card, sir.”

  8. Claude Garamont or Garamond (1490?-1561) was no nobleman, but his Greek fonts received a royal warrant from François I, and he later designed a Latin font for the King’s personal use. The font style we call Garamond today was actually designed by Jean Jannon in 1621 and then lost; on its rediscovery it was wrongly attributed to Garamont, an error not cleared up until 1927.

  9. Tha’s excellent: but the finest source (or font) of great typographical puns is the Guardian newspaper’s wonderful report from 1977 on the “semicolonial” country of San Seriffe, made up of two islands, Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, with its capital of Bodoni, and which I am delighted to see is available as a pdf here

  10. That’s San Serriffe, and I posted (briefly and allusively) about it back in 2003 (only two comments remain from that prehistoric site).

  11. So fonts existed back in 1977? Without home ‘puters and WYSIWYG word-processors? Who would have thought!

    The indigenous population of San Seriffe were the Flongs. What the Guardian’s reports don’t say is that the natives originally consisted of two related ethnic groups: the coastal Wet Flongs and the inland Dry Flongs. The Wet Flongs were displaced and driven to extinction by European settlers in the 19th century. The Dry Flongs still linger on in some places, but the population size given in the 1977 article (574,000) is certainly an overestimate. The Guardian fell in for General Pica’s propaganda.

  12. Jongseong Park says

    Piotr Gąsiorowski: So fonts existed back in 1977?

    The word “font” originally referred to metal type, cf. French fonte “melting, cast iron”. In the olden days of manual printing, it would

    have referred to a complete set of metal type of a given size and style. So a 10pt Bodoni regular would be a font, a 24pt Bodoni Italic would be a font, 32pt Bodoni caps would be a font and so on.

    With the advent of digital typography, “font” came to be used for digital rather than physical formats, although there is no consensus on what exactly is designated by “a font”. The prevailing opinion among practitioners is that in digital typography, “a typeface” as a term covers the general design regardless of size or style—Bodoni would be a single typeface, whether regular, bold, italic, incised, or what have you—while “a font” refers to a single style, e.g. Bodoni italic, in a specific file format. So a Bodoni italic TrueType font would be a font. The main difference with the old days is that with fonts being digitally scalable, you are no longer confined to a specific size (although you could still have different styles optimized for different sizes, e.g. Bodoni caption or Bodoni headline). Please see Thomas Phinney’s survey on font terms:

    I suspect the general public, to whom “font” is what you see in the menu, often uses “font” even where those in the industry would use “typeface”.

  13. I’m pretty sure Piotr Gąsiorowski was being ironic, but a useful history lesson nonetheless.

  14. Jongseong Park says

    He was probably being ironic, but his mock surprise does allude to the striking fact that before being introduced to everyday computer users in the personal computing revolution of the 1980s (by the Mac in particular), the term “font” would have been restricted to obscure specialist jargon. Now it’s mainstream to talk about one’s favourite font.

    Google Ngram viewer registers a massive spike in the 1980s for “font”:

  15. My business, Karoll Rufirant, is certainly none of yours.”

    “Say you so?” Rufirant’s voice rose. “Mates, he says his business be not ours.”

    There was a laugh from behind him and a voice sounded. “Right he be, for his business be book-mucking and ‘puter-rubbing, and that be naught for true men.”

         —Isaac Asimov, Foundation’s Edge


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