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.

6 Tasty Bits of Waffle House Kitchen Slang

iStock
iStock

While Waffle House is a 24-hour diner, their servers don’t use typical diner slang to communicate orders to the kitchen. The restaurant chain uses its own lingo to employ what they call the “Pull-Drop-Mark” system to take orders in all of its 2100-plus locations throughout 25 states.

“The Pull-Drop-Mark system is what our associates use to ensure our guests get their meal quickly," Pat Warner, Waffle House's director of public relations and external affairs, tells Mental Floss. "It consists of the call-in where the server calls in the order using this system. Since we opened in 1955 we’ve used a call-in system for our team. It has evolved over the years as we’ve expanded the menu, however even today’s system can be traced back to the first restaurant.”

Here are some delicious terms you might hear during your next Waffle House visit.

1. The Mark

At every Waffle House, there is a small red tile surrounded by gray tiles on the floor near the open kitchen and grill. This is called “The Mark,” and it’s where every server or sales associate stands when he or she is calling in an order for the grill operator. Servers are only allowed to call in orders from The Mark to make sure only one order is being called at a time.

The Waffle House has used the call-in system since the chain was founded nearly 65 years ago. It’s the best way to get orders filled quickly and served to customers within the company’s eight-minutes-or-less mandate.

2. Pull

The “Pull” refers to all the meats for an order that the grill operator should pull from the refrigerator, be it bacon, sausage, chicken, sirloin—or all of the above. The meats for an order are pulled first because they require the longest amount of cooking time. After declaring "Pull," the server then calls the amount for the order, based on the standard serving size for each dish.

For example, if a server asks for “Pull one bacon” that means three slices of bacon, which is the standard amount. If a customer wants six slices, the associate would say “Pull two bacon.”

3. Drop

The “Drop” refers to any hash browns being included with an order. A sales associate might say “Drop four,” which means the kitchen should drop four hash brown orders on the grill. After a server calls the amount for the drop, then they may indicate the style, “scattered” or “in a ring.”

If a customer wants their hash browns “scattered” that means they want them broken up and spread out while cooking; if they want it cooked together and compact, the server would call “in a ring.” If a server doesn’t call “scattered” or “in a ring,” the default style is always “scattered.” So if a sales associate calls in, “Drop four, three in a ring,” that means four hash browns, one scattered, and three in a ring.

4. The Plate

Actor Chris Rock (2nd from left) stops by the Waffle House after the VIP screening of Paramount Pictures' 'Top Five' and meets customers Donnell Woods, Daryl T. Johnson II and Semhar Haile on December 9, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia
Chris Rock makes some new friends at the Waffle House in Atlanta, Georgia
Rick Diamond, Getty Images for Allied

When calling in an order of hash browns, the server must give a minimum of two pieces of information: “The Drop” and “The Plate.” The “Drop” is for the amount of hash browns to cook on the grill, while the “Plate” refers to the order that gets those hash browns.

For example, if a customer orders two scrambled eggs with hash browns, the server would call in, “Mark order scrambled plate.” If a customer wants grits instead, the call-in would be, “Mark order scrambled.” All breakfast orders default to grits, so there’s no need to say grits. If a customer wants to skip both the grits and hash browns, then the call-in is, “Mark order scrambled, hold the grits.” (Though why would they want to do that?)

“It’s two different labels for the hash browns,” Warner says. “The ‘Pull’ alerts the cook (or as we call them grill operator) how many hash browns to drop on the grill to get them cooking. The ‘Plate’ refers to any order that has hash browns. Say you get a quarter cheeseburger with hash browns—that’s a 'quarter cheese plate,' so we know the hash browns go on the same plate as the cheeseburger.”

5. Deluxe

Waffle House sales associates call burger orders “quarter” because it’s exactly a quarter pound of beef, or four ounces. If a customer wants lettuce, tomato, and onions with their burger, then the order call-in is “Deluxe.” So if the call-in is “quarter cheese deluxe,” that means a customer ordered a cheeseburger with lettuce, tomato, and onions.

6. All The Way

Although Waffle House was founded in 1955, it wasn't until the early 1980s that the franchise started to offer toppings on their iconic hash browns. It started when restaurant owners noticed grill operators adding something extra, like gravy and jalapeños, to the hash brown they made for family and friends. It wasn't long before customers began requesting the same toppings for their potatoes, so Waffle House obliged and officially added a range of toppings to the menu in 1984.

Of course, being Waffle House, there was a special spin to these toppings and the call-in lingo for servers and grill operators. Customers can order their hash browns scattered and smothered (with sautéed onions), covered (with melted cheese), chunked (with grilled hickory smoked ham), diced (with grilled tomatoes), peppered (with spicy jalapeño peppers), capped (with grilled button mushrooms), topped (with Bert’s Chili), or country (with sausage gravy). If you're really hungry, or really brave, you can also go “all the way,” which means you'll get all eight toppings served on scattered hash browns.

7 Common Words With Little-Known Relatives

iStock.com/deepblue4you
iStock.com/deepblue4you

When some words hit the big time, they left clunky related terms behind. You can make amends by sprinkling these little-known relatives into conversation, but don't be surprised if you have to provide a definition.

1. Exhaust/inhaust

While exhaust, from the Latin for "draw out of," was first attested around 1540 and went on to a great career in the English vocabulary, inhaust, with the meaning "draw into," was attested in 1547 (something about a "flye inhausted into a mannes throte sodenly") but soon became obsolete.

2. Omniscient/nescient

You know about omniscient, which comes from the Latin for "all knowing," but did you know there was a counterpart meaning "not knowing"? You can now consider yourself more-scient!

3. Resuscitate/exsuscitate

Exsuscitate was around in the 1500s, as was resuscitate, but where resuscitate was for the act of bringing someone back from the dead, exsuscitate was for the less impressive act of rousing or waking someone up from sleep. It didn't stick, and it doesn't look likely to be resuscitated.

4. Preliminary/postliminary

Postliminary has a technical use in international law, where it refers to the "right of postliminy" (stuff taken in war gets returned), but it's also been used sporadically since the early 19th century as the opposite of preliminary.

5. Incantation/excantation

If your incantation turns out to be a magic spell that somehow gets you in a jam, it might be good to be able to perform an excantation to get yourself out of it. Too bad the word, attested in 1580, is now obsolete.

6. Incrimination/concrimination

It wouldn't be fun to be the subject of an incrimination, but it might be a little more fun to be part of a concrimination with your friends, meaning "a joint accusation." The word shows up in a 1656 dictionary, but we have no evidence that anyone ever used it.

7. Inaugurate/exaugurate

Back in 1600 the word inaugurate was used to describe a ceremonial act of consecration or induction into office, but there was also the word exaugurate meaning, according to the OED, "To cancel the inauguration of; to unhallow, make profane."

A version of this piece first ran in 2013.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER