Beastly Letters

Mayanday10Let’s play twenty questions:  What has a tail, beak, chin, leg, arms, shoulders, spines, neck, eye, and hairline, but no blood or brains?
Give up?
The answer is the printed character for a letter.  The official typography terminology for the style and appearance of printed matter includes tail, beck, and so on.  Ever wonder why are such beastly descriptions are used to describe fine art of lettering?  If you recalled that the evolution of the printed word traces its roots to hieroglyphs or pictograms, to things that do have beaks, tails and chins, it makes sense.  However, not all typography terms fall in the body part department.

fox with writting quill

Serif and swash were two typography terms that I had a tough time picturing.  I thought if I knew their etymology it might help me understand their graphic meaning. The etymology of serif is likely the anglicized Dutch word “schreef”, meaning “line” or “pen stroke”. Serif is the extra flourish on letters that resembles lettering produced by paint brush or quill point. While San serif (now we are tacking on a French word, without, to the old Dutch word) resembles letters created with a chisel. San serif became popular in the 19th century when metal type became more common in print making.

Swash could mean flamboyantly swagger with a sword, or the sound of water splashing.  I am going to assume Zorro definition because it best fits the decorative extension on a letterform. I recall swashes abound in old texts and formal wedding announcements. The capital letter at the begin of a sentences has an extension to the left or the last letter on the line has an extent to the right. I have read that swashes were used in former times to help fit the text to the line, instead of spaces of varying widths.