January 31

British Standards 2961:1958 titled Typeface Nomenclature was published on January 31, 1958. It represents an attempt to systematize the terminology of a craft which had heretofore resisted such endeavors for over five hundred years. While there is a reasonable amount of agreement on some printing trade terms and it wouldn’t take very long for any aggregation of printers representing a number of nationalities to be able to communicate with one another on the point, the pica, x-height, italic, font, series, family, etc., a smoky haze might interfere with rapid comprehension when the conversation turned to such matters as gothic, sans serif, antique, roman, Latin, Egyptian, etc. The British Standards Institution—aided and abetted, no doubt, by various printers’ organizations—leaped into the breach and valiantly attempted to define the weight and the width of printer’s typefaces. They importuned printers everywhere to come to an understanding on the matter.

In the relatively unsophisticated days of the 15th century, a printer had a type in his shop. If he wanted to use a little emphasis, he printed words or lines in a different color. Later on, different sizes of type came into use for such a purpose and then different styles of type. With the 20th century came variations of stroke thickness.

British Standards defined weight reasonably by stating that it is the degree of blackness of a typeface. The relative weights of a family of type are recommended to be known as: extra-light, light, semi-light, medium, semi-bold, extra-bold, and ultra-bold. Then, having taken the bull by the horns, British Standards bravely faced the morass of type width.

A type style which is correct for a specific measure, or length of line, might possibly be too wide to incorporate into a narrow space or too narrow for a wider one. The idea was developed that a type should be made available in a width narrower than normal and wider than normal. As in the business of weight, typefounders were delighted with the opportunity to sell type in a number of widths. The trouble arrived when they attempted to name the widths. This is one of the problems which received the attention of the compilers of the British Standard on Typeface Nomenclature.

Their suggestion for meeting this enigma was to dictate that the relative widths of typefaces should be ultra-condensed, extra-condensed, condensed, semi-condensed, medium, semi-expanded, expanded, extra-expanded, and ultra-expanded. And there the matter stands, the committee apparently having gone off on holiday, leaving the poor printers to try to ascertain the differences between semi-expanded and expanded.

The Bureau rates a B for effort, though, as present nomenclature is certainly just as cloudy. Take as an example the name of a current type, Record Gothic Heavy Medium Extended. To the making of types there will be no end.

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