‘Stereotype’ and other words from printers’ lingo

The printing press not only transformed the business of the written word, but gave English new words altogether, our language columnist writes.


The printing press has given English a surprising number of words. Early 19th-century French printers had two words for the cast metal plates they used to reprint popular books without needing to reset the type. The plates were clichés (which we talked about last week), and books produced in this manner were éditions stéréotypes, a combination of the two Greek words stereós (“solid” or “fixed”) and túpos (“impression,” the mark left by a blow).

In English, stereotype first referred to the metal plates themselves, which had been invented as a way to reproduce text cheaply and quickly. The word’s metaphorical possibilities were irresistible, and by the mid-19th century it was being used for anything “continued or constantly repeated without change,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1849, for example, a man complained that his wife was content to use “stereotyped epithets of endearment” – “dearest” and “angel” were popular at the time – instead of letting passion inspire something more creative.  

One area in which “fixed impressions” abound is in discussing people grouped by nationality, gender, religion, race, and so on. Journalist Walter Lippmann seems to have popularized the word’s usage in this sense in a 1922 discussion of how preconceived stereotypes can act as rubrics for understanding a complex world, but how they can be dangerous when people cling to them despite contrary evidence, or if they are simply wildly off base to begin with.

We have uppercase and lowercase letters not because the former are taller, but because of the way printers stored their movable type. Capital letters were kept in the “upper case,” along with symbols and accent marks that would be needed less frequently; small letters, commas, periods, and so on were stored in the “lower case,” closer to the compositor. 

A typo was once short for typographer, but by 1892 had come to refer to typographers’ errors as they grabbed the wrong letter. 

If you act with the imprimatur of your boss, you’re doing something with her formal approval. Imprimatur means “let it be printed” in Latin, and in Renaissance England it was included at the beginning of books to prove they had been licensed for publication by the authorities. 

There’s also an idiom that is attributed to printers’ lingo: out of sorts. From the late 17th century, a sort was an individual letter, a piece of movable type. If a typographer ran out of sorts, he’d have trouble finishing the job, and would probably be frustrated. To be out of sorts is to feel “irritated” or “upset,” as anyone would be who had reached into his lower case and discovered that he is out of e’s.

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