A brief history of font names: Great Primer to Comic Sans
‘There’s some raw work done at the baptismal font’, Bertie Wooster memorably remarks to Jeeves upon discovering that the seemingly bland and innocuous industrialist Mr Trotter is the reluctant owner of the forenames ‘Lemuel Gengulphus’. Another kind of font, the typeface, often comes with its own unexpected and more or less enigmatic name which few of us think to interrogate in this age of digital text and seemingly endless typographical variety.
But how and why do Comic Sans, Helvetica, Times New Roman, et al., have the names they do, and has type always been named in the same way? The significance of a modern font name is often shrouded in mystery, destined to be known only to the designer or distributor who named it, but before we consider a few examples that can be explained, it’s worth looking back at the onomastic history of typography.
The early years: font size does matter
For almost four centuries, type was a precious and expensive resource. Sets of different sizes and styles of each letter – roman, italic, blackletter – had to be painstakingly cut by hand before being cast in metal. Printers would have had to switch from these sets of letters, which were kept in heavy boxes or cases divided into two compartments for capital and minuscule letters – the origins of our upper case and lower case – if they wanted to mix different sizes or styles of type on a single page. Most printers had access to only a small number of different typefaces for different purposes, so it’s no wonder that some of the first ‘founts of type’ were named for their basic characteristics – especially size – or for the purposes to which they were put.
One of the earliest lists of English type names cited by the Oxford English Dictionary comes from a printer’s indenture of 1539, and lists ‘The englyshe letter the grete prymer letter the small letter’, among the founts available at the time. A primer was the standard elementary textbook for children, and Great Primer was the large, easy-to-read typeface, roughly equivalent to a modern digital font at 18pt, in which such a book would have been printed. Meanwhile both English and (more obviously) small were ways of distinguishing different sizes of letter. The origins of other early names, although clearly associated with specific sizes of type, are now subject to conjecture, but both pica and brevier may, like primer, be derived from the names of specific types of book.
In the seventeenth century, new size names such as pearl or nonpareil were less obviously tied to specific contexts, seeming instead to assert the aesthetic qualities or usefulness of the sizes and designs so named. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century typographers have sometimes appropriated these more romantic-sounding printers’ names for new designs: Minion and Galliard are now attached to distinctive, endlessly resizable digital fonts, but they were originally categories of type of a given size.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the designer steps forward
In the nineteenth century, increasing mechanization of type production combined with social and economic changes created new contexts for typography in commercial rather than literary settings. The subsequent explosion in the range and variety of typefaces available created a growing need to classify and distinguish between categories of type which shared common characteristics and design features. The first sans serif and slab serif designs were both cast in the 1810s, but acquired their now-familiar names only later (confusingly, the first sans serif was called ‘Egyptian’, a name now usually applied to slab serifs), while the growing prevalence of high-contrast Romantic serif typefaces called moderns led to the designation of all earlier serif faces as old face. This new historical perspective bore typographic fruit in the form of designs (often known as old style, although this term is sometimes used interchangeably with old face) combining features of the moderns with old-face type.
This growing historical perspective, combined with a typical nineteenth-century urge to classify and collect stimulated a new interest in the type designers of the past, whose work (either in the form of metal type or printed books and specimens) was now catalogued for the first time. The attempt to retrospectively assign surviving typefaces to their designers was not always successful, and led to at least one durable blunder. Garamond is a name familiar to many of us from our digital font menus, but it is in itself no guarantee that the serif typeface you’ve selected for your job application or wedding invitation is the work of sixteenth-century designer Claude Garamond. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the compilers of an inventory of type and matrices held by the Imprimerie Royale in Paris misattributed a large body of the work of the seventeenth-century printer and typecutter Jean Jannon to Garamond. Consequently, many typefaces known as Garamond today are actually twentieth-century revivals based on Jannon’s later, baroque designs, while only a single major family of type is named for Jannon himself.
Most historical type-cutters and founders were luckier than Jannon, and a sense of the type designer as a culturally significant creator – perhaps even an artist – developed during the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. The association of designer and a single, usable design was most firmly cemented in the 1920s and 1930s, with a wave of revivals of typefaces from all periods of printing – Baskerville, Van Dijck, Granjon, Fournier, Bodoni, and others – for use on the new Monotype and Linotype machines, which cast and set type on demand from hot metal. However, twentieth century American typographer, Frederic Goudy, had already asserted his artistic identity with a series of eponymous faces beginning in 1914–15 with Goudy Roman and Goudy Old Style. Oswald ‘Oz’ Cooper followed Goudy’s lead with a series of Cooper typefaces for the American Type Foundy, beginning in 1918 and including the now iconic Cooper Black (1922), while English sculptor and typographer Eric Gill followed suit with his Gill Sans (drawn for Monotype and released in 1928). More recent star typographers who have given their own names to their work include Hermann Zapf, Adrian Frutiger, and Matthew Carter.
Up to the present: Euonyms, false friends, and shifting sands
Some modern type wears its essential character on its sleeve with a well-chosen and evocative name. Hermann Zapf’s interrelated designs for Palatino, Aldus, Sistina, and Michelangelo, for instance, point clearly to Zapf’s Italian Renaissance and humanist inspirations. However, it would be unwise to attach too much significance to font names, as they are often unreliable guides. High Tower Text might evoke a modernist utilitarian sans face with the clean lines and solidity of a skyscraper (at least, that’s what it always evokes for me), but it is actually attached to a revival of an Italian humanist design even more delicate and lyrical than Palatino or Aldus.
Comic Sans is a typeface which states its intentions and its affiliations unusually clearly: it is a font intended to invoke the hand-drawn, sans serif captioning of cartoons and comics. It belongs to a relatively common subset of modern font names which, like Latin species names, are binomial. Two-part font names usually consist of an indicator of the specific individual design (or design family, designer, foundry, commissioning institution or publication) to which it belongs, coupled with a more general indication of its broad typographical category, or of the context for which it has been designed and is particularly suited: Carter Sans, Whitman Display, Bembo Book, Janson Text, Akzidenz Grotesk (grotesk is the – slightly depreciative – German term for sans serif), Lucida Blackletter.
Even the most familiar of font names and the most famous of fonts can conceal unexpected complications and contradictions. Helvetica, a classic of Swiss design seems likely to have been born with its name, with Helvetia a Latin name for Switzerland from which the English adjectives Helvetian and Helvetic are derived. It was, however, conceived by its Swiss designer Max Meidinger as a revision of a German model, Akzidenz Grotesk, and began its life in 1957 as Neue Haas Grostesk – the new sans serif from the Haas font foundry. Renamed in 1960 by the Haas foundry’s German parent company in order to give it wider international appeal, the ploy clearly worked: today Helvetica is, in the words of American book designer, poet, and translator Robert Bringhurst, ‘the one typeface that is famous for being famous’.
Bringhurst has nothing to say about Comic Sans in his The Elements of Typographic Style, often regarded as the serious typographer’s bible, but perhaps it deserves to stand shoulder to shoulder with Helvetica – if only as the one typeface famous for being infamous.