Mind your P’s and Q’s

One of the greatest thrills of my life happened in our local museum when our kids were little. The exhibit was The Dead Sea scrolls. The fragments of the scrolls presented that day proved to be quite unimpressive. There was little there for the kids to gain an appreciation of what they were looking at. But there was something for them to get their hands on downstairs, and it may have been even more significant historically than the ancient parchment fragments behind the glass. An elderly gentleman was happily giving a spirited demonstration on one of the greatest inventions of all time: the Gutenberg Press. He had a working replica right there in the museum! I couldn’t believe my eyes when I walked in the room. It was as much like the original as human hands could make it. I happened to work in the printing industry at the time, so I was doubly interested in this exhibit. When he asked for volunteers to pull the big wooden lever to make the impression, I was first in line. My daughter was second.

Gutenberg had converted an old wine press to print typeset pages one after another with amazing speed. This one invention was responsible for the literacy of generations. Before the press, it took one monk one year to transcribe one Bible. Books of any kind were extremely rare and were almost always in the possession of the elite. Literally, no one had books. Think of that. With the printing press, hundreds of books could be printed at a time. Bibles found their way into the hands of almost everyone. And average folks learned to read for the first time in history.

A typeset page consists of little metal blocks of backwards letters, similar what you would see in an old typewriter. These blocks were arranged to form the text on the page and clamped in place into a chase where they could be inked for printing. The printer would need many copies of each letter to typeset a page, and these would have to be organized into a case for storage when not in use. Each letter would have its own compartment in the case, and great pains were taken to keep the letters in the correct compartments. You can imagine how much harder it would be to typeset quickly and accurately if the letters were not in their right compartments. Customers don’t pay for mistakes.

But here’s the thing. In the English language we have capital letters and small letters, right? Well, to keep things within easy reach, there were two cases, one above the other. And guess where the typesetter put the capital letters. The upper case. And naturally the small letters went in the lower case. Do you need to read that again to get it? I’ll wait.

Now keep in mind that the letters are backwards when you look at them on the block. This is so that they make a correct image when pressed against the press sheet. But it can create a problem when trying to keep things in their proper place to avoid mistakes. For instance, a backwards lower case p looks just like a lower case q. So it became critical for a typesetter, when removing letters from a chase and storing them, to…wait for it…mind his p’s and q’s!

Now be honest. You had no idea that’s where we got that saying, did you?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *