Typography Terminology and Meanings in the Georgian Era

Printing or typography terminology has always been interesting and in some cases amusing. It seems that long ago, as “a joke, or for the purpose of irritating, compositors were called asses by the pressmen … [or in some cases] galley slaves, an expression … used jocularly in England and America.[1]” Apparently, many typography words were also related to the animal kingdom. These words included “bullock’s heart, beak, cocks, fat, fly, goose, grease, hens, monkeys (compositors were sometimes thus styled by pressmen in retaliation for being called pigs by them), mutton first, mutton thumper, mutton thumping, neck … pigs, sheeps’ foot, slugs, etc.”[2]

Typography Shows Church Font From the 1800s

Church font from the 1800s. Author’s collection.

Many other interesting and unusual typography terms also existed during the Georgian Era, some of which are described below:

Admiration—This is otherwise called the Sign of Exclamation, and is formed thus (!).
Affiche—A paper or bill affixed to a wall; a placard, bill or handbill.

Bastard Title—The short or condensed title preceding a full title of work.
Batter—Any injury to the face of the type sufficient to prevent its showing clearly when printed.
Bodkin—A pointed steel instrument used to pick wrong or imperfect letters out of a page.
Botched—Careless or badly-done work.
Bottle-arsed—Type that is wider at the bottom than at the top.
Bottle-necked—Type that is thicker at the top than at the bottom.
Broken Matter—Pages of type disrupted and somewhat intermingled.
Bullet—The dismissal of a person, either from misconduct or another cause.

Candlestick—In early times, when compositors worked at night by candle light, they used a candlestick that was heavy and loaded at the base to keep it steady and prevent it from falling over. These types of candles were still sometimes used in the 1830s.
Chaff—A slang word too frequently heard in the printing office when one compositor teased another about his work, habits, disposition, and so forth.
Choked—Type filled with dirt.
Chapels—This was another word for meetings in the office in consideration of trade matters or for settling disputes.
Clearing Pie—Separating various sizes or kinds of type from a confused mass.
Coventry—When a workman did not conform to the rules of the “Chapel,” he was sent to the Coventry. That is, no person was allowed to speak with him, apart from business matters, until he paid his dues.
Cut the Line—A term used among compositors to signify leaving work.

Dead Horse—When a compositor drew more money on account than he had actually earned, he was said to be ‘horsing it’ and until he did enough work in the next week to cover the amount withdrawn, he was said to be working a “dead horse.”
Devil—The term applied to the printing boy who accomplished the drudgery required in the print office.

Eighteenmo—A sheet of paper folded into eighteen leaves that made thirty-six pages.

Fat-face Letter—Letters with a broad face and thick stem.
Floor Pie—Type that was dropped on the floor during composition or distribution.
Fly—The man or boy who took off the sheet from the tympan as the pressman turned it up.
Forty-eightmo—A sheet of paper folded into forty-eight leaves or ninety-six pages.
Foul Proof—A dirty proof or one with many errors or corrections marked on it.
Fudge—To execute work without the proper materials or to finish it in a bungling or improper manner.

Gets In—A term used when more was inserted into a line or page than existed in the printed copy from which it was set. It could also indicate that the manuscript copy did not fill up as much space as was calculated.
Grass-hands—In addition to the regular staff, extra assistance was sometimes required to produce the paper. Persons so engaged were called “grass-hands” and many compositors earned a good living by grassing.
Guillotine Cutting Machine—A machine used to cut paper, that was based on the same principle as the French instrument of decapitation, from which it derived its name.

Hair Space—The thinnest of spaces.
“He has got the bullet“—When a man was discharged on a moment’s notice, it was said “he has got the bullet.”[3]
Hell—The place where the broken and battered type was deposited. See also Shoe.
Horseflesh—When composition was paid for week after week “on account,” it was known as horseflesh.
Horses—Pressmen were called horses due to the exhausting labor they performed.
Horsing It—When a compositor or pressman wrote more than he earned, he was said to be “horsing it.”

Jerry—A peculiar noise rendered by compositors and pressmen when one of their companions renders themselves ridiculous in any way.

Knock Up—To knock up a paper was something different from a knocker-up who woke someone up. In the case of a knock up it meant to get it into a condition where each sheet exactly covered, but did not overhang, the sheet below.

Laying-on-boy—The boy who fed sheets of paper into the machine was the laying-on-boy.
Lean-face—A letter of slender proportions, compared with its height.

Mackle—An imperfection in the printed sheet where part of the impression appeared double.
Monk—A botch of ink on a printed sheet, arising from insufficient distribution of the ink over the rollers.
Muller—A sort of pestle, used for spreading ink on the ink table.

News-hand—A compositor employed solely on newspapers.
News-house—A printing office in which newspapers were exclusively printed, and a term used to distinguish it from book or job houses.

Off—When a job was printed and finished, it was said to be “off.”
Off Its Feet—When a letter did not stand upright, it was said to be “off its feet.”
Old Pelt—Referred to an old pressman.
On Its Feet—When a letter stood perfectly straight and upright.
Out—Anything omitted and marked for insertion in the proof by the reader, was said to an “out.”
Out of His Time—When an apprenticeship was finished, the youth was said to be “out of his time.”

Peel—A wooden instrument shaped like a letter “T” used for hanging up sheets on poles.
Penny-a-liner—A reporter who was not on the staff but submitted assignments based on approval.
Picking-Up Type—This was a common phase substituted for composing. “A ‘picker-up’ of type [was] used in a derogatory sense to denote that a man [was] only capable of the mere mechanical operation of lifting the type, but [was] not accustomed to the more intellectual work of making good divisions, judicious spacing & c.”[4]
Pie—A mass of letters disarranged and in confusion.
Pig—What a pressman was formerly called by compositors.
Pigeon Holes—Unusually wide spaces between words caused by the carelessness or want of taste of the workman.
Press Goes Easy—When the run of the press was light and the pull was easy.

Quire—For most purposes it consisted of twenty-four sheets, although for newspapers it was twenty-five sheets.

Rat—A compositor or pressman who worked for less than regular prices was called a “rat.” This approbation stayed with him for life and he was hooted at and despised by other workman who charged appropriate prices.
Rat-house—A printing office that did not conform to the rules of the printers’ trade union.

Scorpers—Instruments used by engravers to clear away the larger portions of wood not drawn upon.
Sets Clean—This referred to a compositor who made few errors.
Sets Dirty—This referred to a compositor who made a lot of mistakes.
Sheep’s Foot—An iron hammer with a claw end, used by pressmen in their job.
Ship—A colloquial abbreviation for companionship.
Shoe—An old slipper with the upper part cut away was hung at the end of the frame, so when the compositor came across a broken or battered letter, he could deposit it there.
Squabble—Lines twisted out of their proper positions with letters running into wrong lines, etc.
Stigmatypy—The arrangement of points that were printed and of various thicknesses to create a picture.
Stoneman—A compositor who assisted a newspaper printer in imposition, correcting editor’s proofs, and so forth.

Tail Piece—An ornamental device placed at the end of a chapter or book.
Taker-off—The person who removed the sheet from the printing machine after they were printed.
Tying Up Pages—Pages secured with string preparatory to their being laid in order.

Ultimate—The last syllable in a word.
“Up”—Referred to a job that was completely composed.

Vellum—The skin of very young or abortive calves, prepared to be written or printed upon.
Vignette—A small ornamental engraving used to ornament a page.

Wayzgoose—An annual festivity celebrated in most large printing offices.

Xylography—Engravings on wood.

Zincography—Printing accomplished “from a zinc plate somewhat in the same manner as in lithography from a prepared stone.”[5]


  • [1] The Typographical Journal, Vol. 16, 1900, p. 89.
  • [2] Ibid. p. 90.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 91.
  • [4] Dictionary of Typography and its Auxiliary Arts, 1875, p. 103.
  • [5] Ibid. 138.

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