How about a brief excursion into the etymology of the tools of the writer’s trade? The word “pen” is derived from the Latin penna, a feather – because, of course, for many centuries people wrote with quill pens, trimming and splitting the nibs with sharp little “pen knives”.
The German feder, Spanish and Italian pluma and French plume are all derived from the same etymological root. I’ve always found it an attractive idea that writing should be associated with wings, and that the same, proverbially light scrap of protein should bestow the power of flight on both birds and words. The plume should be ideally plucked from a nice fat goose, which could be paid for by exerting the feather, together with a little ink.
“Ink” itself has a very noble ancestry, being derived from encaustum, the purple liquid used by Roman emperors for signing. Ah, the power of the word! It’s related, of course, to “encaustic”, the technique of painting with melted, coloured wax, which produces vivid effects, but allows very few second thoughts. The artist has only a few moments before the wax cools, and so must get it right the first time – a lesson many writers might do well to learn, perhaps?
“Encaustum” is derived from Greek kaustikos, “burning”, because flame is needed to melt the wax; and the word is related to our “caustic”, meaning words or materials capable of burning, and also to “holocaust”, the burning of everything.
The great Holocaust in which twelve million human beings were consumed also began with a few words signed in ink.
Interestingly, the word “pencil” has a different derivation from “pen”, and comes from Latin “penis”, a tail. That this word also applies to the male sexual organ is one of those happy Freudian coincidences – or is it? Ay, thereby hangs a tale. It may be worth remembering that ‘author’ derives from the Latin verb augere, to make something grow, to originate, promote or increase.
These days, of course, pens and pencils have largely given way to keyboards. Although “keyboard” is a fairly recent coinage, dating to the early nineteenth century, the use of the word “key” to denote the striking lever of a musical instrument goes back to mediaeval times. The clavichord was a fifteenth century predecessor of the harpsichord and the piano, in which a string (chorda) was struck with a key (clavis).
This concept was transferred to typewriters and thence to the computers we now use. Once again, there is something beguiling about this association, the clicking of our keyboards translating into flowing music. It makes one wonder what the next tool of the writer’s trade will be?
© Marius Gabriel, 2021.
This post is by Marius Gabriel. He is the author of a number of historical novels, including The Ocean Liner and The Parisians, as well as the Redcliffe Sisters 2-part series, Take Me To Your Heart Again and Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye.
His novel set in wartime Paris, The Designer, won the Romantic Novelists Association Prize for Historical Romance. Born in South Africa in 1954, he has lived and worked in many countries, with a recent three-year domicile in Egypt. He now lives in Lincolnshire and has three grown-up children. To view all of Marius’s books click here.
According to “The Economist” Letterpress is making a comeback. This centuries old method of printing, whereby letters are pounded deep into the paper, is no passing fad for a new generation of artists, graphic designers and others accustomed to the world of digital print. They have “discovered” a printing process barely changed since its invention by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century, and as a result are basking in the tactile and visual splendour that letterpress brings to their work. It’s a very far cry from the 1980s and 90s when photo-offset and computer printing deemed lead type redundant, and the only letterpress printing left standing were private presses whose handmade books were mostly aimed at bibliophiles.
So what accounts for this resurgence? Apparently, two factors. Firstly, digital fatigue, and second and somewhat ironically, technology has made it easier to print letterpress than ever before. An apprentice need no longer spend years learning how to set metal type into rows as a computer design can be turned into a plastic printing plate. Thus, for both the hobbyist and the professional designer, letterpress, be it metal or plastic, is now the latest on-point tool. Those who are returning to letterpress are learning the fundamentals of typography; leading the charge are those trained in the visual arts, such as graphic designers, fine artists and illustrators.
Let’s have more “what’s old is new”.
For an insight into the history and techniques of letterpress printing you can read Justin Knopp’s fantastic blog TypoReturn at http://blog.typoretum.co.uk/
He has his own letterpress printing business and is also involved in the conservation and restoration of old printing presses.