Miscellany № 92: a lightly festive miscellany

Work continues apace on the new book, but here are a few links I couldn’t let go before the holidays are upon us.

First is this amusing and well-crafted video exploration of where the comma should go in the first line of the song God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. Very clever, and very well executed. Kudos to its maker, Ramses the Pigeon.

Next up is my one and only Christmas gift recommendation this year (barring my own books, of course!). This fetching asterisk-as-snow T-shirt is available from Type Tasting, as are hoodies and greetings cards bearing the same pattern.

Red T-shirt printed with snow in the form of asterisks
Asterisk snow T-shirt available from Type Tasting.

Type Tasting, I should say, is the website of Sarah Hyndman, a prolific writer and public speaker on typography. Very much worth a follow on the social network of your choice.

Elsewhere, my blog-friend Glenn Fleishman, who hosts the Tiny Typecast podcast, last month released an episode on electrotyping in the nineteenth century. What is electrotyping, you ask? Well, now you can find out. (Full disclosure: I appeared on Glenn’s podcast last year, talking about books, book history, and and more. Extra full disclosure: I’ve met Glenn in real life, and he is a thoroughly decent chap. Do yourself a favour and subscribe to the Tiny Typecast!)

I was intrigued to see a tweet announcing the publication of an open access book entitled Manual of Roman Everyday Writing, Volume 1: Scripts and Texts. (Volume 2, Writing Equipment, was published earlier this year.) I haven’t had a chance to dig into them yet, but both volumes give every impression of being invaluable resources on how the Romans wrote and what they wrote with — exactly the sort of thing I could have used back in 2016 as I wrote The Book!

Volume 1 was written by Alex Mullen at the University of Nottingham and Alan Bowman of the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents. Volume 2 was written by Anna Willi, also at Nottingham. Both books were sponsored by the LatinNow project, which has a blog post announcing volume 1. Both are now on my reading list, and if you’re at all interested in ancient writing, I suspect you might want to add them to yours, too.

Enjoy the holiday season, and see you in the new year!

Ciemne typki competition: we have a winner!

Congratulations to Mykola Leonovych on winning a copy of the new edition of Ciemne typki, the Polish translation of Shady Characters! I asked entrants about their favourite marks of punctuation and why they liked them. Here’s Mykola’s winning entry:

My favourite punctuation mark is probably the fleuron. I use ❧ to mark a personal section of my email newsletter, and sometimes a beginning of a poem (for that I also like the asterism, ⁂). I think that any font with a fleuron is more lively than without.

Indeed! I’m grateful to Mykola for reminding me about the fleuron and asterism, a pair of marks that have somehow not featured prominently here on the blog. And he makes a good point about fonts and shady characters: in the same way that Van Halen demanded a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown ones removed to figure out which concert promoters had read their contract and which hadn’t, for me the absence of a fleuron or other unusual marks is a sign of a typeface lacking a bit of verve. Conversely, a good asterism or pilcrow is a sign of a designer with a sense of history.

If you’d to see Mykola deploy a fleuron in person, his newsletter Повільна людина (The Slow Person), where he writes in Ukrainian “about books, culture, and typography”, lives here.

Mykola’s copy of Ciemne typki will be in the post soon, and thank you all for entering!

Win a copy of Shady Characters for National Punctuation Day!

Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad photograph by the author.

It’s the 24th of September, which means it’s National Punctuation Day! To celebrate, I’m giving away a copy of Wydawnictwo Karakter’s gorgeous Polish edition of Shady Characters. (My terrible photo does not do it justice – this is a great-looking book.)

To enter, drop me a line via the Contact page and tell me what your favourite punctuation mark is and why. I’ll pick a winner on Sunday the 3rd of October. Be sure to let me know if you’re happy for me to share your entry!

I’ll ship to any continent except Antarctica (I’m looking at you, residents of Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station).

Good luck!

Miscellany № 91: interrobang archaeology

Funny how time gets away with you in a late-stage pandemic, isn’t it? Here are a few somewhat recent stories of a typographic or emojinal (?) bent that Shady Characters readers may enjoy.

If you recall, the interrobang came into being back in 1962 and was immortalised just a few years later in Richard Isbell’s Americana typeface of 1967. As the first interrobang to take its place in a fully-fledged typeface, Isbell’s “open” version has a reasonable claim to being the canonical form of the character. The holotype of the interrobang, so to speak.

Designed for Richard Isbell's Americana
Designs for the extra bold weight of Richard Isbell’s Americana. (Image courtesy of Fritz Klinke on Flickr.)

As far as I know, no digital version of Americana includes an interrobang patterned after Isbell’s original design. In fact, other than the hand-drawn example here, decent images of Isbell’s interrobang of any sort have general been hard to come by. Until now, that is: the indispensable Stephen Coles, editorial director and associate curator at the Letterform Archive in San Francisco,* recently tweeted that a clutch of Americana ephemera have been uploaded to the Letterform Archive’s website. You can find the complete collection here, but with the permission of the Letterform Archive I thought I’d highlight one particular example:

Americana Italic specimen, showing regular and italic interrobangs
1969 type specimen for Richard Isbell’s Americana, showing both regular and italic interrobangs. (Image courtesy of the Letterform Archive. View the original here. Thanks to Stephen Coles.)

As is traditional for type specimens, this one oscillates between the mundane and the absurd. What’s noticeable, though, is how prominently the interrobang features: either Isbell or ATF must have been quite taken by Martin Speckter’s new mark. Quite an achievement for a symbol of punctuation that had only been invented only a few years earlier, even if its Warholian five minutes never quite translated into a durable presence on the printed page.

Elsewhere, the National Law Review reports on “The Case of the [Allegedly] Stolen Ampersand”. Moshik Nadav Typography, a boutique type studio, filed a claim against Banana Republic stating that the clothing company had stolen an ampersand from Nadav’s Paris Pro typeface. That first suit was dismissed for lack of evidence, but Nadav has filed a second on more limited grounds. Head over to the article to judge (ho ho) for yourself, but Nadav looks to have a pretty solid moral case even if the court has found their legal arguments to be less convincing.

Over at the MIT Technology Review, Tom Mullaney writes about the first digital Chinese fonts. I wrote in The Book about China’s invention of movable type and the problems that hampered its wider adoption, and Tom’s article is a neat account of the parallel issues that affected digital Chinese typography. Aficionados of early desktop computing will appreciate the details:

At the advent of computing and word processing in the West, engineers and designers determined that a low-resolution digital font for English could be built upon a 5-by-7 bitmap grid — requiring only five bytes of memory per symbol. Storing all 128 low-resolution characters in the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), which includes every letter in the English alphabet, the numerals 0 through 9, and common punctuation symbols, required just 640 bytes of memory — a tiny fraction of, for example, the Apple II’s 64 kilobytes of onboard memory.

But there are tens of thousands of Chinese characters, and a 5-by-7 grid was too small to make them legible. Chinese required a grid of 16 by 16 or larger — i.e., at least 32 bytes of memory (256 bits) per character. Were one to imagine a font containing 70,000 low-resolution Chinese characters, the total memory requirement would exceed two megabytes. Even a font containing only 8,000 of the most common Chinese characters would require approximately 256 kilobytes just to store the bitmaps. That was four times the total memory capacity of most off-the-shelf personal computers in the early 1980s.

And finally: the king is dead, long live the king! Keith Broni of Emojipedia writes that on Twitter at least, FACE WITH TEARS OF JOY (😂) is no longer the most popular emoji. Enter, instead, the even more hysterical LOUDLY CRYING FACE (😭). Keith wonders if the change is down to the Covid-19 pandemic (“Is there simply less to laugh about now?”), which seems like an eminently sensible conclusion in these challenging times. But as ever, the shifting sands of the emoji lexicon mean that the most straightforward explanations are not always the right ones. Nowadays, ‘😭’ is often used to mean “I’m laughing so hard I’m crying” — which is exactly the same ground once staked out by ‘😂’. Emoji users may not be distressed by the pandemic so much as following emoji fashion.

Stephen can be found at on the web at stephencoles.org and typographica.org, and on Twitter

A reminder: email subscriptions are changing

As I mentioned last week, email subscriptions are changing. If you subscribe to Shady Characters by email, or you’d like to do so, please read last week’s post to learn more. This will be the last post that goes out to existing email subscribers, so please make sure you update your subscription soon!

(If you’ve already updated your subscription to the new system, why not take a look back at my recent visit to Vindolanda, a fort near Hadrian’s Wall?)