10 Everyday Phrases That Come from Printing

Printer's Error, Harper Collins // Type: Ross MacDonald // Photo by Rebecca Romney
Printer's Error, Harper Collins // Type: Ross MacDonald // Photo by Rebecca Romney

It surprises no one to say that the printing press has revolutionized the world. Even the word revolution, in the sense of overturning an entire established system, comes from the 1543 publication of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus. It used the orbits of the planets, called “revolutions,” to argue for a sun-centered system over an Earth-centered one. But the people behind the books, the ones who made these objects, left their own marks too.

With my co-author JP Romney, I’ve written an entire book about the flesh-and-blood humans behind the printed book called Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History. There’s more to that physical object we see most of the time only as a stand-in for the ideas it holds. Evidence of this lives even in our language: The following everyday phrases all came from the practical lives of people at work behind the scenes, printing books that would carry revolutionary ideas to the front lines.

1. OUT OF SORTS

This phrase has come to mean feeling a bit off, unwell, or grumpy—which is entirely appropriate because it comes from printers running out of type. A sort is an individually cast piece of type. For most of the history of print, purchasing type was expensive, and to save on costs, many printers would only keep enough on hand to get the job done. But sometimes this meant running out of type in the middle of a job, making you out of sorts.

2. MIND YOUR P’S AND Q’S

Image of a type case from Joseph Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, 1683 // Public Domain

This phrase means being on one’s best behavior in British English, and paying close attention in American English. Both versions make sense coming from the print shop. Setting type means placing each individual letter in backward, so that when the inked type is pressed into paper, the mirror image reads the right way forward.

This required a certain amount of focus from the workers who set the type (known as “compositors”), especially when it came to letters that look like mirror images of each other. In older type cases, each letter was kept in a segregated section to be picked out by the compositor setting the type. The lowercase p’s and q’s are right next to each other, just begging to be mixed up. That’s why it’s “mind your p’s and q’s,” not “mind your b’s and d’s,” which are not neighbors in the type case.

3. AND 4. UPPERCASE AND LOWERCASE

The type case clearly ruled the compositors’ lives. But more than that, it changed the way we think about the alphabet. Look back at that image of the type case from Moxon’s book published in 1683. The case is tilted up slightly. All the capital letters are on the top, or the uppercase. The ones in the lower part of the case are, you guessed it, all lowercase.

5. HOT OFF THE PRESS

The Linotype machine, from Appleton's Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics, 1892 // Public Domain

You can be forgiven for assuming that “hot” in “hot off the press” means the most up-to-date news. You’re right, but for the wrong reason. The paper coming off the press wasn’t literally hot, nor did the press itself heat up. It came from the “hot” type cast on the Linotype machine (above). Invented by the German-born American immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler, this machine allowed compositors to type on a keyboard what they wanted to print. As they went along, the machine would cast the type right there out of molten metal (mostly lead). Considering how time-consuming and expensive it was to have a lot of “cold” (previously cast) type around to set by hand, this was a major innovation. The machine got its name from the delighted reaction of the owner of the New York Tribune: “You have done it, you have produced a line o’ type.”

6. STEREOTYPE

An electrotype plate that has partially worn away; you can see the layers. Electrotypes are a type of stereotype plates with a layer of copper. Photo by Rebecca Romney.

In yet another example of font tyranny, the process of stereotyping sought to address the chronic scarcity of type supplies by making molds of already set type, then casting whole metal plates of the page for reprinting later. That way you could take apart the type (called “distributing”) and immediately use it for other projects. Stereotyping was expensive, but imagine that poor compositor having to re-set some ridiculously popular book for the 26th time. A book had to reach a certain level of demand to merit the high expense of stereotyping, but it was worth it.

Take the idea of creating thousands of exact printed copies from a single original setting of type just one step further and you get the modern meaning: assuming that every person from a single group is the exact same.

7. CLICHÉ

Here is another printing innovation that snuck into our everyday speech with a simple step from the literal to the figurative. Cliché is the French word for stereotyping. But instead of casting whole plates from metal, the French would cast frequently used phrases in one block, ready to be set among the individual letters to save time. These were phrases used so much they became cliché. The French verb clicher means “to click,” which imitated the sound made when striking metal to create stereotype plates.

8. TYPECASTING

When an actor is chosen for a role because she fits a certain profile, she has been typecast. “Type” and “cast”: those are two words you’ve seen a few times in this list. In one of the common processes for shaping metal such as type, you create a mold into which molten metal is poured. It then cools and hardens into the shape defined by the mold. This process is called casting, and the word typecast is believed to be a nod to it. The same metal shaping method is also where “to fit a mold” comes from.

9. MAKE AN IMPRESSION

While this figure of speech is a metaphor for doing something that makes you memorable, it’s all tied up in a word for “printing.” The Latin word imprimere means “to press into or upon.” In British English, rare book dealers tend to refer to a print run as an “impression” (whereas American dealers call it a “printing”). It also survives on a slightly different track in our word imprint. Whether you’re dressed to impress, making a good impression, or impressive in your bow staff skills, you’re borrowing a term that made it into English thanks to the printing press.

10. DITTO

Mid-century ad for DITTO, Inc. // Creative Pro

This word, used as a shorthand to repeat something that’s already been said, ultimately comes from the Italian word detto, the past participle of “to say.” But the word gained steam in the early 20th century with a duplicating machine produced by DITTO, Inc. The company’s logo? A single set of quotation marks, which we use to mean “ditto.”

Learn more about how laziness, feuds, and madness changed the world through print in our book Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History.

15 Slang Terms You Need to Know

iStock/Sashatigar
iStock/Sashatigar

It’s possible to get the pants from too much honeyfuggling. Spark some conversation with these vintage and regional terms.

1. The Term: Hurkle-Durkle

The Definition: According to John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, 200 years ago to hurkle-durkle meant “To lie in bed, or to lounge after it is time to get up or go to work.” Basically, that urge we all fight every weekday morning.

2. The Term: Got the Morbs

The Definition: A phrase from 1880 meaning “temporary melancholia,” according to Passing English of the Victorian Era.

3. The Term: Stubby-Holder

The Definition: An Australian slang term for an insulated beverage holder. (A stubby is Aussie for a 375-milliliter bottle of beer, by the way.)

4. The Term: To Poke Bogey

The Definition: A 19th-century slang word for tricking someone. No one’s quite sure where the phrase came from, but it could have its roots in words for ghosts—bogey as in bogeyman, and poke may be related to an old English word for spirit.

5. The Term: Lizzie Lice

The Definition: According to Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of the Underworld, this term for a policeman who patrols in cars dates to the 1930s. You might not want to use it when you get pulled over, though. (Rat bag, for a plainclothes detective, may also be unwise.)

6. The Term: Peerie-Winkie

The Definition: Peerie is an old Scottish word meaning “little,” and a peerie-winkie is the little finger or toe. If you’re looking for a fun way to refer to your hands, use the word daddles.

7. The Term: Got the Pants

The Definition: This phrase, according to Passing English of the Victorian Era, means “panting from over-exertion.” After you take the stairs, you get the pants!

8. The Term: Toad-Strangler

The Definition: Those who live in the Gulf states are probably familiar with this term that describes a sudden, and heavy, rain.

9. The Term: Honeyfuggle

The Definition: This word technically means to deceive or to cheat, but according to the Dictionary of Regional American English, it’s also used for public displays of affection.

10. The Term: Whooperups

The Definition: A Victorian term for “inferior, noisy singers” that is just as applicable at modern-day karaoke joints.

11. The Term: Degomble

The Definition: The Antarctic Dictionary defines this as “to disencumber of snow,” usually when coming in from outside.

12. The Term: Play at Rumpscuttle and Clapperdepouch

The Definition: This 1684 phrase has nothing to do with playing games and everything to do with, uh, getting it on. You can also play at rantum-scantum (1667), couch quail (1521), or tray trippee of a die (1660).

13. The Term: Abstain from Beans

The Definition: Here’s one to keep on hand during family gatherings: According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, this is a phrase meaning “to desist from politics.” As Plutarch explained in the circa 110 CE book Of the Training of Children, the term meant “to keep out of public offices” because “anciently the choice of the officers of state was made by beans.” Literally or figuratively, it’s probably a good rule for parties.

14. The Term: Cwtch

The Definition: A very Welsh term for a hug that makes you feel warm inside. (It rhymes with “butch.”)

15. The Term: Hand in One’s Dinner Pail

The Definition: Well, maybe you don’t want an occasion to use this phrase, at least in its original meaning—it’s slang from 1937 for death. Later, the phrase would come to mean “to resign from one’s job; to stop what one is doing.”

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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