Tuesday, April 19, 2011


In typography, serifs are semi-structural details on the ends of some of the strokes that make up letters and symbols. A typeface that has serifs is called a serif typeface (or seriffed typeface). A typeface without serifs is called sans-serif, from the French sans, meaning “without”. Some typography sources refer to sans-serif typefaces as "grotesque" (in German "grotesk") or "Gothic", and serif types as "Roman".

Serifs are thought to have originated in the Roman alphabet with inscriptional lettering—words carved into stone in Roman antiquity. The explanation proposed by Father Edward Catich in his 1968 book The Origin of the Serif is now broadly but not universally accepted: the Roman letter outlines were first painted onto stone, and the stone carvers followed the brush marks which flared at stroke ends and corners, creating serifs.

The origin of the word serif is obscure, but apparently almost as recent as the type style. In The British Standard of the Capital Letters contained in the Roman Alphabet, forming a complete code of systematic rules for a mathematical construction and accurate formation of the same (1813) by William Hollins, it defined surripses, usually pronounced "surriphs", as "projections" which appear at the tops and bottoms of some letters, the O and Q excepted, at the beginning or end, and sometimes at each, of all." The standard also proposed that surripses may be derived from the Greek words συν (together) and ριψις (projection). In 1827, a Greek scholar, Julian Hibbert, printed with his own experimental uncial Greek types. He explained that unlike the types of Bodoni's Callimachus, which were "ornamented (or rather disfigured) by additions of what I believe type-founders call syrifs or cerefs." The oldest citations in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) are 1841 for "sans serif", given as sanserif, and 1830 for "serif". The OED speculates that serif was a back-formation from sanserif. Webster's Third New International Dictionary traces serif to the Dutch noun schreef, meaning "line, stroke of the pen", related to the verb schrappen, "to delete, strike through". Schreef now also means "serif" in Dutch.

The OED's earliest citation for "grotesque" in this sense is 1875, giving stone-letter as a synonym. It would seem to mean "out of the ordinary" in this usage, as in art grotesque usually means "elaborately decorated".

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