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

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.

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From Snoopy to Shark Bait: The Top Slang Word in Each State
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There’s a minute, and then there’s a hot minute. Defined as “a longish amount of time,” this unit of time is familiar to Alabamians but may stir up confusion beyond the state’s borders.

It’s Louisianans, though, who feel the “most misunderstood,” according to the results of a survey regarding regional slang by PlayNJ. Of the Louisiana residents surveyed, 72 percent said their fellow Americans from other states—even neighboring ones—have a hard time grasping their lingo. Some learned the hard way that ordering a burger “dressed” (with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo) isn’t universally understood, nor is the phrase “to pass a good time” (instead of “to have” a good time).

After surveying 2000 people (with proportional numbers from each state), PlayNJ created a map showing the top slang word in each state. Many are words that are unlikely to be understood beyond state lines, but others—like California’s bomb (something you really like) and New York’s deadass (to be completely serious)—have spread well beyond their respective borders thanks to memes and internet culture.

Hawaiians are also known for their distinctive slang words, with 71 percent reporting that words like shaka (hello) and poho (waste of time) are frequently misunderstood. Shark bait, one of the state’s more colorful terms, refers to tourists who are so pale that they attract sharks.

Check out the full list below and test your knowledge of regional slang words with PlayNJ’s online quiz.

A chart showing the top slang words in each state
PlayNJ
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Beyond Wanderlust: 30 Words Every Traveler Should Know
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For those who travel, wanderlust is a familiar feeling. It’s that nagging voice in your head that says, “Yes, you do need to book that flight,” even if your bank account says otherwise. Regardless of how many passport covers this word may adorn, it doesn’t begin to cover the spectrum of emotions and experiences that can be revealed through the act of travel. Here are 30 travel words from around the world to keep in your back pocket as you're exploring this summer.

1. VAGARY

From the Latin vagari, meaning “to wander,” this 16th-century word originally meant a wandering journey. Nowadays, "vagaries" refer to unpredictable or erratic situations, but that doesn’t mean the old sense of the word can’t be invoked from time to time.

2. SELCOUTH

An Old English word that refers to something that’s both strange and marvelous. It's a great way to sum up those seemingly indescribable moments spent in an unfamiliar land.

3. FERNWEH

Who hasn’t felt a strong desire to be somewhere—anywhere—other than where you currently are? That’s fernweh, or “farsickness," and this German word has been described as a cousin of wanderlust, another German loan word.

4. DÉPAYSEMENT

A busy street in Hong Kong
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Anyone who has traveled abroad will recognize this feeling. The French word refers to the sense of disorientation that often sets in when you step outside your comfort zone, such as when you leave your home country.

5. DÉRIVE

Another gift from the French, this word literally translates to “drift,” but thanks to some mid-20th century French philosophers, it can also refer to a spontaneous trip, completely free of plans, in which you let your surroundings guide you.

6. PEREGRINATE

To peregrinate is to travel from place to place, especially on foot. Its Latin root, peregrinus (meaning “foreign”), is also where the peregrine falcon (literally “pilgrim falcon”) gets its name.

7. PERAMBULATE

Similar to peregrinate, this word essentially means to travel over or through an area by foot. So instead of saying that you’ll be walking around London, you can say you’ll be perambulating the city’s streets—much more sophisticated.

8. NUMINOUS

The Grand Canyon
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This English word could appropriately be used to describe the Grand Canyon or the Northern Lights. Something numinous is awe-inspiring and mysterious. It's difficult to understand from a rational perspective, which gives it a spiritual or unearthly quality.

9. PERIPATETIC

The young and the restless will want to incorporate this word into their lexicon. The adjective refers to those who are constantly moving from place to place—in other words, a nomadic existence. It stems from the Greek word peripatein (“to walk up and down”), which was originally associated with Aristotle and the shaded walkways near his school (or, according to legend, his habit of pacing back and forth during lectures).

10. WALDEINSAMKEIT

You’re alone in a forest. It’s peaceful. The sun is filtering through the trees and there’s a light breeze. That’s waldeinsamkeit. (Literally "forest solitude." And yes, Germans have all the best travel words.)

11. SHINRIN-YOKU

In a similar vein, this Japanese word means “forest bathing,” and it's considered a form of natural medicine and stress reliever. There are now forest bathing clubs around the world, but you can try it out for yourself on your next camping trip. Take deep breaths, close your eyes, and take in the smells and sounds of the forest. Simple.

12. SOLIVAGANT

In those moments when you just want to run away from your responsibilities, you may consider becoming a solivagant: a solo wanderer.

13. YOKO MESHI

This Japanese phrase literally translates to “a meal eaten sideways,” which is an apt way to describe the awkwardness of speaking in a foreign language that you haven’t quite mastered, especially over dinner.

14. RESFEBER

A woman at the airport
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You just booked your flight. Your heart starts racing. You’re a little nervous about your journey, but mostly you just can’t wait to get going. The anticipation, anxiety, and excitement you get before a big trip is all rolled into one word—resfeber—and you can thank the Swedes for it.

15. FLÂNEUR

Taken from the French flâner, meaning to stroll or saunter, this word describes someone who has no particular plans or place they need to be. They merely stroll around the city at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and enjoying the day as it unfolds.

16. GADABOUT

This could be construed as the traditional English equivalent of flâneur. Likely stemming from the Middle English verb gadden, meaning “to wander without a specific aim or purpose,” a gadabout is one who frequently travels from place to place for the sheer fun of it. In other words: a modern-day backpacker.

17. HIRAETH

Sometimes, no matter how amazing your vacation may be, you just want to come home to your bed and cats. This Welsh word sums up the deep yearning for home that can strike without warning. As Gillian Thomas put it in an interview with the BBC, “Home sickness is too weak. You feel hiraeth, which is a longing of the soul to come home to be safe.”

18. YŪGEN

The karst peaks of Guilin, China
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This Japanese word can be taken to mean “graceful elegance” or “subtle mystery,” but it’s much more than that. It's when the beauty of the universe is felt most profoundly, awakening an emotional response that goes beyond words.

19. SCHWELLENANGST

Translating to “threshold anxiety,” this German word sums up the fears that are present before you enter somewhere new—like a theater or an intimidating cafe—and by extension going anywhere unfamiliar. The fear of crossing a threshold is normal, even among the most adventurous of travelers—but it often leads to the most unforgettable experiences.

20. COMMUOVERE

Have you ever seen something so beautiful it made you cry? That’s commuovere in action. The Italian word describes the feeling of being moved, touched, or stirred by something you witness or experience.

21. HYGGE

This Danish word refers to a warm feeling of contentedness and coziness, as well as the acknowledgement of that feeling. Although not explicitly related to this term, author Kurt Vonnegut summed up the idea behind this concept quite nicely when he said, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

22. HANYAUKU

Here's one for those who have a beach trip coming up. Taken from Kwangali, a language spoken in Namibia, hanyauku is the act of tiptoeing across hot sand.

23. SMULTRONSTÄLLE

A patch of wild strawberries
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This Swedish word translates to something along the lines of “place of wild strawberries,” but its metaphorical meaning is something along the lines of a "happy place." Whether it’s a hidden overlook of the city or your favorite vacation spot that hasn’t been “discovered” yet, smultronställe refers to those semi-secret places you return to time and time again because they’re special and personal to you.

24. DUSTSCEAWUNG

This Old English word describes what might happen when you visit a place like Pompeii or a ghost town. While reflecting on past civilizations, you realize that everything will eventually turn to dust. A cheery thought.

25. VACILANDO

In some Spanish dialects, the word vacilando describes someone who travels with a vague destination in mind but has no real incentive to get there. In other words, the journey is more important than the destination. As John Steinbeck described it in his travelogue Travels With Charley: “It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but doesn't greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. My friend Jack Wagner has often, in Mexico, assumed this state of being. Let us say we wanted to walk in the streets of Mexico city but not at random. We would choose some article almost certain not to exist there and then diligently try to find it.”

26. LEHITKALEV

Backpackers and budget travelers, this one is for you: The Hebrew word lehitkalev translates to “dog it” and means to deal with uncomfortable living or travel arrangements.

27. KOMOREBI

Sun shining in the woods
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This beautiful Japanese word is a good one to save for a sunny day spent in the woods. Komorebi translates to “sunshine filtering through the leaves.” Does it get any lovelier than that?

28. RAMÉ

This Balinese word refers to something that is simultaneously chaotic and joyful. It isn’t specifically a travel word, but it does seem to fit the feelings that are often awakened by travel.

29. TROUVAILLE

Translating to a “lucky find,” this French word can be applied to that cool cafe, flower-lined street, or quirky craft store that you stumbled upon by chance. Indeed, these are the moments that make travel worthwhile.

30. ULLASSA

Just in case you needed another reason to plan that trip to Yosemite, here's one last word for nature lovers. The Sanskrit word ullassa refers to the feelings of pleasantness that come from observing natural beauty in all its glory.

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