October 5

Of the making of alphabetic sentences there is no end, but it must be admitted that it all started with printers. No doubt the first printer’s devil hit upon the scheme in order to learn better the unique arrangement of the earliest type case. The practice was continued with the development of the keyboard operated devices from Dr. Church’s machine to Mergenthaler’s. The writer is reminded of such sentences by running across a little book of them completed on this day in 1950 by two students in the composing room of the School of Printing at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

In this volume, titled The Twenty-six Letters, the sentences are illustrated in several colors by intricate arrangement of ornaments, rules, and assorted dingbats. Naturally enough, the first entry is the most frequently encountered sentence of all, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Thirty-five letters!

Countless disciples of the Art & Mystery have attempted down the years to accomplish the inclusion of the twenty-six characters of the roman alphabet into a sentence that is both economic and literate—no simple task, if we examine the efforts of some of the most distinguished and gifted practitioners of the craft. The incomparable Bruce Rogers endeavored to reduce the brown fox quip to thirty letters in the beautiful specimen sheet which he designed for Fred Goudy’s Italian Old Style type, in 1923. BR appended the original with “& (doesn’t count) xvj brawny gods flock up to quiz them.” It may be noted that the crafty typographer, just because he was working with Renaissance material, pulled a fast one with that “xvj,” although he said that the quote was from “some lost mythology.” BR also entered the lists in the same text with “Foxy judges track val’ble peach wine,” but it is evident that the muse had left him. While he managed a certain frugality of numbers, he did so at the expense of leaving out two letters, and of course he weaseled with the apostrophe.

A really noble attempt to achieve par by one Edmund Thompson, resulted in “Quick zephyrs blow vexing daft Jim,” a 29-letter gem which would annoy only a parsing seventh grade English teacher. A printer named Hank Bates reached the zenith in 1941 with, “Frowzy things plumb vex’d Jack Q.” Again the refuge in the apostrophe, and a slight falling from grace with the initial, but admirable prudence in word selection.

Some of the more literate typos have scorned to limit their scope to twenty-six letters, preferring to amuse, if not inform, with their alphabetical prose style. George Trenholm, the genial Boston designer, set a high standard with “Exquisite farm wench gives body jolt to prize stinker,” and “The exodus of jazzy pigeons craved by squeamish walkers.” Trenholm proved his virtuosity with, “Jail zesty vixen who grabbed pay from quack,” a top-drawer performance besides such jaded efforts as, “J.Q. Plow might vex Z.D. Burk’s fancy,” by the believe-it-or-notter Ripley, who only proved that he was not a real printer, but merely a reporter turned cartoonist. But the returns are not all in—we haven’t heard from the computers!

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