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Historical Font Facts

February 27, 2020 — 13 Comments

Consider yourself blessed if you’re not a fontaholic. The affliction leads to clogged font directories on your computer, and an unavoidable prejudice toward either serif or sans serif fonts.

People who are intrigued by typography know exactly what I’m talking about. At least two or three times a year they will inextricably find themselves on some font website (there are scores of them) without consciously knowing how they got there or there or there.*

I’ve written about fontaholicism in the past. Unfortunately, despite my advocacy, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has yet to classify the malady as a recognized illness. That said, the American Psychiatric Association does sound a bit obsessive compulsive in terms of their font guidance for annual meeting posters.

If any or all of the work in this poster was prepared with commercial support, a statement “Supported by funding from [name of company]” must be noted in the lower left corner of the poster in Arial 72 point font, with no bold, italics, special colors, or other enhancement of the company name, product, or any other portions of the statement.

One wonders what sort of reaction a person would get from the APA if they used Times Roman or Comic Sans by mistake.

C.S. Lewis & Fonts

It should be acknowledged up front that C.S. Lewis was not obsessed with fonts. However, he was wise enough to recognize their significant role in communication. Good fonts could be transparent, while problematic fonts blurred the message. He highlighted one of the most significant aspects of a font’s usage—size—in a 1957 letter. He told a fellow Brit, “you’d be much wiser to get my books in the American edition as these now have larger print and better paper than our own.”

A year earlier he had discussed a related issue with his publisher. There was a problem with a Shakespeare quotation intended for the title page of Till We Have Faces.

The quotation would, I agree, look better on a page to itself, but (what is more important) I am very strongly opposed to the idea of dividing it. I agree that it ‘looks wrong as it is’ but I think it will look equally with any division whatever. I do not see why it need be printed ‘absurdly small’ to fit in as one line . . .

Now a line of that length on a page to itself would I believe, look ugly if it came anywhere near the middle of a page–because it would then seem to divide the page into two halves. But would it not look quite nice if put near the top? It would then have the properties of a frieze or dado with plain wall under it.

And we may perfectly well omit the word ‘Shakespeare’ if we think that makes a better design. But I’d prefer even a bad design to a division of the verse.

Free Books about Fonts

You can find a number of interesting books about fonts at some of the wonderful internet libraries such as Project Gutenberg. During recent historical research about Reformation-era artists, I discovered a book written by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Since his fame is derived from his portraits of prominent people, I was surprised he had written a guide for properly shaping letters, based on geometric principles. The introduction provides a fascinating portrait of sixteenth century artistry in northern Europe.

In our Germany . . . are to be found at the present day many young men of a happy talent for the Art Pictorial, who without any artistic training whatever, but taught only by their daily exercise of it, have run riot like an unpruned tree, so that unhesitatingly and without compunction they turn out their works, purely according to their own judgment.

But when great and ingenious artists behold their so inept performances, not undeservedly do they ridicule the blindness of such men; since sane judgment abhors nothing so much as a picture perpetrated with no technical knowledge, although with plenty of care and diligence.

Now the sole reason why painters of this sort are not aware of their own error is that they have not learnt Geometry, without which no one can either be or become an absolute artist; but the blame for this should be laid upon their masters, who themselves are ignorant of this art.

Since this is in very truth the foundation of the whole graphic art, it seems to me a good thing to set down for studious beginners a few rudiments, in which I might, as it were, furnish them with a handle for using the compass and the rule, and thence, by seeing Truth itself before their eyes, they might become not only zealous of the arts, but even arrive at a great and true understanding of them.

Dürer’s book sparked my curiosity, and a very quick subsequent search hinted at the wealth of typographical information online. For example, you can read about The Typography of Advertisements, circa 1911. There you will be warned that bolder is not always better.

“But,” some one says, “the heavier and bolder type-faces furnish a greater contrast to the white of the paper, and therefore should be easier to read.”

It is true that a greater contrast of color is furnished in the use of the bolder type-faces, but to force these greater contrasts on the eye is to literally club it into reading the text, whether or no. Are the salesman’s statements of better selling value because they are shouted loudly in direct contrast to the quiet of the office?

There may be, and undoubtedly are, some on whom this force is necessary, but to those who are sufficiently educated and intelligent to be reached through the appeal of an advertisement, the quiet dignity of the salesman’s statements made in well-modulated tones will be more attractive.

Gaze back even farther, to what was considered Early Typography in 1872. There you will discover a medieval religious order devoted to worship and manuscripts.

Reference has more than once been made to the impulse given to learning at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries. This movement was helped forward by no one in Holland and Germany more than by Gerhard Groote, or Magnus, of Deventer, (b. 1326, d. 1370), who after studying theology at Paris, became a canon of Utrecht and Aix-la-Chapelle, and founded the Order of the Brethren and Clerks of the Common Life, generally known as the “Gemeiineslebens,” or “Frères de la Vie Commune . . .”

It was divided into the literary Brethren or Clerks, and the unlearned Brethren, who lived in different houses, but in bonds of the greatest friendship. The Clerks devoted themselves to transcribing books, the cultivation of polite learning, and the instruction of youth; and they erected schools wherever they went. The Brethren laboured with their hands, and pursued various mechanic trades. Neither were under the restraint of religious vows; but still they ate at a common table, and had a general community of goods.

There are many other curious titles available to those who choose to explore obscure typography in greater depth. A person might even wish to begin with 1891’s Specimens Of Book, Jobbing, And Ornamental Printing Type In Use In The Government Central Printing Office, Simla [India].

Fonts, fonts, fonts. As I said above, you are fortunate if they don’t draw you too deeply into their orbit. However, if you recognize you too are a fontaholic, take comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone.


* And here’s another font site I had never seen before writing this post. It has a delightful name, Font Squirrel. Once I finish writing this piece, you can guess where I will be spending some of my web surfing research time.

The Elefonts cartoon at the top of the page is a creation of talented Canadian John Atkinson, and is used with permission.

Crying for Attention

May 19, 2015 — 11 Comments

abcxyzAre you driven by the unquenchable thirst to be the center of everyone’s attention. Or, would you be more content to live out your life appreciated by a small cadre of friends?

A woman in South America recently displayed an extreme case of the former impulse. She had grown tired of her name because it was too mundane. Apparently she garnered insufficient attention as Ladyzunga Cyborg.

So now her name, legally changed, is ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ.

My first thought when reading this was not that I didn’t believe it. In our foolish world, where people use symbols that aren’t even words for their names, I just shook my head. And . . . I thought “how fortunate for her that she’s not Chinese,” with its 46,964 characters as recorded in the Kangxi Dictionary.

This is not the sort of publicity Columbia needs. She’s acting bizarrely enough to be a mistaken for a Californian.

Of course, people at the opposite extreme—those who cannot bear the presence of other human beings—are also troubled. As with so many aspects of the human personality, people at either of the extreme poles are frequently deemed mentally ill.

This fetish for exhibitionism is alien to me. I would much prefer downing a pint with friends at the Eagle and Child to standing on some stage in front of “adoring crowds.”

My “introvert” quotient appears to be eclipsing my “extravert” qualities.

C.S. Lewis never sought the limelight either. He did not find his experience with notoriety pleasant. And yet, he accepted its burden graciously.

It is commonly known that some days he would spends hours (literally) corresponding with some of the thousands of readers who wrote to him as the creator of Narnia.

It was exhausting.

I assume people like Ms. Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz seek attention because they feel insignificant or unnoticed.

I find that tragic. Tragic because their name, their true name, is known by the most important and amazing person in the universe. The God who created them.

Each and every person, including you, is unique, precious and loved.

Knowing this provides profound peace. It also delivers us from the constant compulsion to seek attention.

Jesus described the profound value of each person by contrasting God’s love for us with the attention he devotes even to a single sparrow . . . “Not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”

And you, that’s you, are far more precious than these.

Unintentional Acrostics

March 10, 2014 — 14 Comments

letterSome writers sweat to find precisely the right word, the one that expresses the unique meaning and tone we seek to convey. We often fail, as the reference to perspiration in my first sentence readily reveals. A recent observation from the executive editor of First Things  provides me with another crippling concern.

“This for those interested in how magazines work. My son Christopher pointed out that the initial capital letters on a two-page spread . . . spelled “a wit.” Which was kind of nice. Accidental, but nice. And then I thought: Suppose some day we accidentally spelled out a rude four-letter word? Now, after the magazine is laid out, one of the junior fellows reads through the magazine to make sure we haven’t accidentally made a word that will embarrass us. It’s a small thing, and probably paranoid, but here paranoia equals prudence.”

Unless each writer maintains constant vigilance, since most of us don’t have “junior fellows” to assign the duty, it’s quite possible for unintentional acrostics to slip into our work. Like the seamen in the crow’s nest of the Titanic—I just watched a new documentary on the subject last night—we can easily miss the veiled iceberg which threatens to sink our best effort.

Prone as we are to playing with the depths of individual words, we are normally sensitive to the fact more than 90% of a word’s value in a particular context may lie beneath the surface. That does not mean, however, that we always see the larger picture.

It is not uncommon for a writer to become almost paralyzed while composing something, when the ideal word continues to elude us. It is almost “literally” painful to have to settle for a substitute, when we suspect the perfect word is floating somewhere just beyond our reach.

Dodging mundane words is not easy. They are common, in part at least, because they are so simple and easy to plug into sentences. And so, we “go” to the store, when we might just as easily “drive,” “walk,” “ride,” or even “hitchhike.” A movie is described as “good,” when readers would value a vivid word, such as, “suspenseful,” “hilarious,” “complex,” “moving,” or even “groundbreaking.”

Reflections on the Psalms, one of C.S. Lewis’ gems, explores the beauty of the Bible’s hymnal. “The Psalms,” he notes, “are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons.” Because of this, they have nourished the worship lives of Jew and Christian alike, for thousands of years.

Even without a theological education, Lewis offers great insight into the Psalms. “I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist.” He candidly discusses passages he initially found difficult to embrace, as well as those which soar to spiritual and poetic heights. The following comes from his discussion of Psalm 119, which is skillfully composed around an alphabetic acrostic.

“As everyone knows, the Psalm specially devoted to the Law is 119, the longest in the whole collection. And everyone has probably noticed that from the literary or technical point of view, it is the most formal and elaborate of them all. The technique consists in taking a series of words which are all, for purposes of this poem, more or less synonyms (word, statutes, commandments, testimonies, etc.), and ringing the changes on them through each of its eight-verse sections—which themselves correspond to the letters of the alphabet. . . . this poem is not, and does not pretend to be, a sudden outpouring of the heart like, say, Psalm 18. It is a pattern, a thing done like embroidery, stitch by stitch, through long, quiet hours, for love of the subject and for the delight in leisurely, disciplined craftsmanship.”

Done like embroidery, stitch by stitch.” Many writers, I suspect, will appreciate that description. While we are sometimes forced to throw something together in a rush, the patchwork results offend our sensitivities.

Even when writing rather pedestrian things like much of our email correspondence, most writers seek to employ lively verbiage. It’s a valuable exercise, after all, to consider the pace of all of our work, and not simply those words we hope to see “published.” And, having written something worth reading, there is one more consideration.

Reviewing what we have written is well worth the time required. And, as Editor David Mills suggested in First Things, our examination should include any unintentional acrostics we may have created. After all, no respectable writer would ever wish to, even accidentally, offend their readers.

Iceland’s Real Elves

January 21, 2014 — 22 Comments

warrior elvesI’ve always wanted to visit Iceland.

Not simply because it’s the most sparsely populated country in Europe . . . even though I’m not big on crowds.

Not simply because of its spectacular glaciers and volcanic activity . . . even though these natural wonders inspire genuine awe.

Not simply because it is home to the world’s most ancient parliamentary democracy . . . even though I believe representative democracy is the best sort of government available.

Not simply because they colonized Greenland, from which the Norse were the first Europeans to discover the Americas . . . even though Leif Erikson deserves the accolades rendered to others.

Not simply because 40,000 of my fellow citizens are of Icelandic descent . . . even though I’m pleased they have contributed to our national “melting pot.”

Not simply because Iceland’s tenth largest city is called Fjarðabyggð . . . even though that vivid name is sure to capture the imagination of any writer.

Not simply because the Icelandic alphabet actually includes a runic letter (Þ, þ) named thorn . . . even though this too makes the nation of Iceland unique.

And, not simply because J.R.R. Tolkien and his friend C.S. Lewis established a group called Kolbitar which was devoted to reading Icelandic and Norse sagas. The word itself means “coal biter” and refers to those in a harsh environment drawing so close to the fire’s warmth they can almost bite the coals.

When the Lord of the Rings (as a work in progress) was being in read at meetings of the Inklings, one of the groups members at some point blurted out, “Oh no, not another –– elf!” [I only mention this here because that impetuous comment is often incorrectly attributed to Lewis—a genuine fan of Tolkien’s masterpiece. It was actually voiced by Hugo Dyson, another WWI veteran who taught English at Merton College.]

In the past, all of these reasons have contributed to my curiosity about the Land of Ice, but now I have added one more reason to someday visit.

It turns out that some Icelanders believe that elves, called by them Huldufólk (hidden folk), are real!

The elves have a large enough human constituency, that they are able to block highway construction due to the impact on the local Huldufólk!

Technically, the preservation of the elvish solitude is only the secondary concern in the lawsuits, the first being protection of one of Iceland’s numerous lava fields. Iceland’s Supreme Court has vacillated on the case, which can only raise the ire of any elves that may reside there.

elf houseIf the proponents of the reality of the Huldufólk are right, there remains one shortcoming to the Icelandic elves. Apparently, if the elf homes that dot the countryside are any indication, the northern island breed are a diminutive race. As in tiny, what Americans would think of more as a gnome or perhaps even a fairy.

My problem is that I’ve been spoiled by J.R.R. Tolkien’s version of the elvish races. I see them a tall, noble, and wise. The kind of folk you’d want for a friend, if you could get past the aloofness that is apparently characteristic of beings who live centuries rather than decades.

I fear that these Icelandic elves are (pardon me, any Huldufólk who may be reading this) a rather inferior lot. More like leprechauns than warriors. If you live in Iceland and can correct my errors about the hidden folk there, please contact me. Even better if you happen to know some elves personally.

Mensa & C.S. Lewis

July 25, 2013 — 18 Comments

crossword puzzleSeveral decades ago, I worked with a Roman Catholic priest, who just happened to be a member of Mensa.

We were good friends, a relationship reinforced by the fact that our bigoted boss thought that both our eternal destinies were in definite jeopardy . . . Pete’s because he was “Catholic,” and mine because Lutherans are “almost Catholic.”

Well, Pete and I got along quite well, although there were two issues we never could resolve. The first was that he smoked large, smelly stogies. Yes, this was long enough ago that you were still allowed to smoke in government buildings.

Even when the rest of the staff successfully begged him to stop parading the halls with his billowing cigars, my friend continued to fill his own office with clouds that would billow out whenever the door was opened.* I had great sympathy for the lungs of the Roman Catholic laity who entered his smoking lounge for counseling.

Aside from the tobacco, there was only a single matter we really disagreed on.

As I mentioned above, Father Pete was a member of Mensa. That’s commendable, in itself. The problem is that he always left his Mensa magazines lying (alone) on the coffee table in the center of his office. He would only smile in a patronizing way when I would (repeatedly) warn him that there could be only two consequences of such brazen self-aggrandizement.

“The first,” I said, “is that they won’t know what Mensa is . . .  and your braggadocio is wasted. The second is worse. They might know what the magazine represents and think to themselves, my, our priest is rather full of himself.” **

At any rate, I have no misconception that I could pass Mensa’s muster. My brain, adequate as it is, simply doesn’t work the way that I guess those of genius’ do. A perfect example of that truth was displayed just a few moments ago, as I read through a few pages of a 2010 Mensa Puzzle Calendar I found among my father’s papers.

I have no doubt that some of you will easily solve this puzzle, but I have to be honest—I missed answering it by a mile.

What do all the words below have in common?

Environment

Bedcovers

Responsibility

Outsource

Confederacy

Slugfest

Jihad

Nunavut

I actually had to look one of the words up. It turns out that “bedcovers” means a bedspread, or anything else one uses to cover a bed. No, seriously, I re-learned that Nunavut is a territory in northern Canada, but I imagine all of you knew that.

Okay, have you taken the time to try to determine what the words have in common? Easy, right?

It turns out that each of them contains a three-letter sequence of adjacent letters in the alphabet, going in reverse. For example, the gfe in “slugfest.”

I doubt I would have been able to figure it out, even if I understood the question, but I must admit my utter ignorance in not even reading the question properly!

I was so enamored by this eclectic collection of words—superficial links between the three combative terms leapt out at me—that I was distracted by seeking bonds between the meanings of the words, rather than in the words themselves. (And, I suspect that may be precisely what those inscrutable devils at Mensa Headquarters intended for simpletons like me.)

Alas, it will take a few days for my bruised ego to rebound. Fortunately, since my memory isn’t as keen as it used to be, I may forget all about this humiliation before the week is out.

C.S. Lewis was a brilliant man. I believe he was a genius. I imagine he could have solved this word puzzle with three-quarters of his mind occupied by higher matters, like watching a wary hedgehog scurry between bushes.

Lewis recognized that our minds are, in fact, a gift from God, to be exercised and celebrated. But, at the same time, he knew better than most the dangers of seeking ultimate meaning in mental pursuits that erect nearly impervious walls to God’s gracious revelation of his love in his only begotten Son.

In The Weight of Glory Lewis explains how those Christians who are blessed with exceptional intelligence owe a duty to their sisters and brothers in the faith. (This, of course, has nothing to do with the subject of holiness or spiritual maturity; there is little or no correlation between piety and intellect.) What he says is, however, worthy of our reflection.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether. Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

So, let this be a reminder to those of you who qualify for membership in the aforementioned society, but still love Jesus despite your vast intellects. After all, as Jesus once said, from “everyone to whom much was given . . . much will be required” (Luke 12:48, ESV).

_____

* I must confess this is a slight exaggeration, lest I be held accountable for breaking the eighth commandment (or the ninth, if you are Jewish or a Christian of the Reformed persuasion).

** This might not be a verbatim account of the way I said it, although I’m pretty confident that I did use the word “braggadocio.”