Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Upper Case, Lower Case
Upper case, lower case – I remember learning to recognize upper case letters (CAPITALS) and lower case letters (non-capitals) in grade school. Did you ever wonder why they’re called that, though? Upper case and lower case are old printing terms that date back to the earliest days of letterpress.
When most letterpress printers (my husband and I included) set type, they use case brackets to hold the cases in easy reach over the case stands (see picture above). A set of case brackets can hold 2 full sized type cases. Most early type cases were designed to hold either capital letters or non-capital letters. The capital letter type case sat on the top section of the case brackets. The non-capital letter type cases with more frequently used letters went in easy reach below the capitals. So capitals became known as upper case, and non-capitals as lower case. The terms are so common now that we recognize them immediately.
Feeling out of sorts? That’s another old printing term. “Sorts” are extra pieces of type that keep a font of type from running out of a letter. They can be ordered from a type foundry or cast in-house, if you have the equipment. Some old time printers had their own casting machine to create “sorts” when letters got low. If you ran completely out of an important letter such as “e” in the middle of setting a printed piece, there was no way to finish it without casting more sorts. Then you certainly might feel “out of sorts”.
If you’re meeting someone new socially or going on a job interview, one of your primary concerns is making a good impression. “Making a good impression” is the primary goal of letterpress. Inked type presses into paper, creating an image or impression. Blurry, smeary, or illegible images make a poor impression; clear, clean, well inked ones create a good impression. You might even say that a letterpress printer makes a good impression by making good impressions!
One more printer’s expression that’s made its way into the language is the old saying, “Mind your P’s and Q’s.” It means to be careful about what you do in the smallest detail. Printing type is set into a composing stick in the opposite direction from the way we normally see it. Printers get used to it, but to most people it’s upward down (see photo below). Turn a lower case p and a lower case q upside down, and they can be hard to tell apart. For that matter, a lower case b and a lower case d are easy to confuse, too. So the old expression maybe should have been, “Mind your P’s and Q’s and B’s and D’s!”
To me it’s fascinating how printing expressions have become an everyday part of the English language. So the next time you use upper case or lower case letters, feel out of sorts, mind your p’s and q’s, or try to make a good impression, you’ll know how the whole thing got started!
Can you read the letters in this composing stick?