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Watch your Ps and Qs

Posted by R. Berg on June 22, 2007

In Reply to: Watch your P,s and Q's posted by RRC on June 22, 2007

: : : Interesting. I had to comment on your "Watch your P,s and Q's". I worked for a printer back in the early 70's that still used lead type when he did business cards. He was in his 80's at that time. Here's the way he told it to me. Before the migration West, lead type cases were divided into 3 compartments each of the same size. Each compartment was divided into 35 smaller boxes 7X5. All the letters of the Alphabet were in proper order and there was the same number of letters in each space. An apprentice type setter could just go through the alphabet to find the letter he was looking for. When printers started making their way West weight was a huge factor in what they could take on the wagons or have shipped by sea. So the California job case was invented. The Left and Center compartments were rearranged to make the best use of the type that could be carried and the number of letters in each box was determined by how often they were used in the English language. Most often used "E" to less often used "Z" and the sizes of the boxes were made to fit each letter better. This put the letters out of order alphabetically and made it much harder to find certain letters. Fonts became known as "E" fonts. A font that wasn't called for much could be ordered as a 12-e font meaning there were 12 e's and the rest of the letters were by the number they would be used. Probably only one "Z" a couple of "F's" and so on. More often used fonts, like Times Roman for example, would be ordered in larger 50-e fonts. As the type was set into the pica stick b's and d's were used often enough that an apprentice would figure their place in the case fairly quickly, but p's were used less often, and q's might not get used much at all. Since the face on the letters was reversed, the p's and q's, when used, were the letters most often mistaken for each other. Hope you like this. I would love to see it put onto your site.

: : It's a good story, but parts of it are, let's say, fanciful. Allowing more room in the case for the more frequent letters (e t o a I n s r d l u) is centuries old.

: Here's a diagram of the layout a California job case

: While the p's and q's are easily mistaken for each other, they are quite far apart. I would think it would be fairly easy to remember that the q's were the ones in the bottom corner. The long part of your story is nearly an "un-explanation" as you're telling of a development that makes this origin less likely instead of more likely.

I've seen a similar explanation - possibly on this forum - and I give the story more credit than that. Remembering the location of the q's is easier than distinguishing a q from a p quickly when refilling the case. A mistake is more likely when an apprentice puts the letters back in their cubbyholes than when he takes them out to set a line.

(Return to previous post for link to layout of job case.) ~rb