Sorting out the p's and q's

DURING my hopeful youth, somebody suggested that if I had journalism in mind I should "learn the case." That is, I should learn to set type. Journeymen compositors were always in demand, so I could find work and eat occasionally if other things didn't pan out. I did learn the case and could do a fair job of justifying a stick of type, but I'm told now in my sour-pickle time that the art has waned and hand compositors are seldom seen approaching the chapel to ask for work. Chapel? Wonder what a contestant on a trivia program would do with some of the old print-shop words? The chapel was the composing room, and the people who worked there – the museum of the stones, the galleys, the shooting-sticks, the devil himself, and the esoteric appurtenances of let-terpress. I learned soon enough that setting type was part of – but not everything in – journalism. For one thing, the compositor follows copy "even if it blows out the window." One doesn't correct an editor's grammar, and one doesn't presume to move the Great Reading Public with astute admonishments in a "boss editorial."

There were no newspapers without the printers, but the printers had to wait on the "hook," the place the editor stuck whatever he'd decided to print. If the back shop whittled the sheets of paper off the hook until hands were idle, the foreman was privileged to stick his head into the sanctum to shout, "COPY!" but that's as close as he got to running the paper.

What would you say about sorts? Sorts are the characters in a font of type, and after a time the compositor might run "out of sorts." That's granddaddy to an expression. The first newspaper column of its kind was started on the old Boston Post by one Newton Newkirk, who called his offering "All Sorts." Later, columns similar to All Sorts would be the vehicles for Don Marquis, Kin Hubbard, Franklin P. Adams, and even Bill Nye.

Years ago Henry Upton, who was foreman of a print shop, ran out of sorts and sent an order to American Type Founders for 25 pounds of 10-point Century capital I's. The quantity puzzled ATF, so they queried the order. Henry explained the oddity of 25 pounds of 10-point capital I's on a postal card: "We're setting the autobiography of Henry B. Tealing." Mr. Tealing was a prosperous man who thought well of himself, and he was having his life-story "vanitied."

What about p's and q's? The apprentice compositor would be warned by the foreman to "mind his p's and q's." The typesetter sees his sorts hindside-to and upside down, so the p does look like a q. So does the b look like a d, but the adage derives from p and q – lower case. (Capital letters were in the upper case, above the small letters.) Before typesetting machines took over, the newspaper compositor usually had a third case, suspended at an angle above his lower and upper – the logo case. Logos were groups of letters cast in a single sort, meant to speed up setting type. The most frequently used combinations of the language were there – such as "her." Instead of making three passes for three letters, the comp would make one pass for "her" in words like mother, hereafter, there, and, say, sherbet.

A comp who set logos could do and correct, sometimes, as much as a galley an hour, which many machine compositors had trouble doing, but setting logos did exact a toll – a good comp on his day off could be seen looking at street signs and breaking them down into logotypes. A cast heading, such as "The Christian Science Monitor" across the top of this newspaper's front page, was a logohead.

When typesetting machines rang the knell for the old comps, two new words evolved  – "shrdlu" and "etaoin." On a typewriter the banks of keys run across  – "qwertyuiop." But on a Linotype they go up and down, and the first two rows were etaoin and shrdlu. If he made a mistake, the operator had to fill out the line before he could make a corrected line, and he would do it by thrumming his fingers down the first two rows of keys  –whereupon shrdlu and etaoin would be cast in a line meant to be discarded by the makeup man. Occasionally the makeup man would miss it, and there in the middle of a poignant and historymaking editorial would be an etaoin shrdlu that caused many a torn editorial hair.

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