Everyday phrases that come from Printing

When Mark Norris, the editor of The GAPP Magazine, added an addendum to my ‘Linotype’ article about the word ‘Fount’, it started me thinking about other expressions in everyday use which had their origins in Printing.

It surprises no one to say that the printing press revolutionised the world. Even the word revolution, in the sense of overturning an entire established system, comes from the 1543 publication of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus. It used the orbits of the planets, called ‘revolutions’, to argue for a sun-centered system over an Earth-centered one. But the people who made the books, those curious characters called Printers, left their own marks too, with expressions and phrases which are in use even today.


The printer is a curious man–
A wondrous mixture he,
And full of contradictories,
As ye shall quickly see.

His personal appearance does
Not strike you with surprise,
Because he has his Roman (n) ‘o’s’
Right underneath his ‘i’s’.

Although his ‘frame’ be no great ‘bulk’,
His meat he always takes,
But is not very fond of ‘pie’,
Though lots of it he makes.

He never ‘poaches’, like a cook,
Yet he the hunt could grace–
He always takes his ‘shooting-stick’
When he attends the ‘chase’.

And he, though ignorant of law,
Could take the lawyer’s place,
For he can practise at the ‘bar’
And look well to his ‘case’.

Though not dishonestly inclined,
Or given to maraud,
We find he often pillages
When he gets out of ‘quad’.

He is not an offensive man
Because he wields a ‘stick’,
Although, whene’er he uses it,
He still keeps out the ‘nick’.

He at the ‘lock-up’ soon arrives,
When trying to ‘impose’,
And yet is a religious man
For he to ‘chapel’ goes.


Extract from a poem from ‘Printer’s Carnival and other poems’ by James Kelly

Although, used in different contexts these days, some of the sayings that we use day-to-day originate from the letterpress process, and nicknames that printers & compositors would have given to certain scenarios.

Out of Sorts

This phrase has come to mean feeling a bit off, unwell, or grumpy—which is entirely appropriate because it comes from printers running out of type. A sort is an individually cast piece of type. For most of the history of print, purchasing type was expensive, and to save on costs, many printers would only keep enough on hand to get the job done. But sometimes this meant running out of type in the middle of a job, making you “out of sorts”.

Mind Your P’s and Q’s

This phrase means being on one’s best behaviour in English. Setting type means placing each individual letter in backwards, so that when the inked type is pressed into paper, the mirror image reads the right way forwards.

Coming a Cropper

Catching your hand in a Cropper & Charlton press is thought to be where the saying, ‘Coming a Cropper’ comes from.

Coin a Phrase

Letterpress quoins are used to lock your type or image into a chase.

Getting the Wrong End of the Stick

Originates from a composition stick where you set the type. Since we read from left to right it is important to set the type right to left. If you start at the left hand end of the composition stick then it’s said that you ‘get the wrong end of the stick’.

Dog’s Bollocks

A typographic nickname for a colon and a dash.

Dab Hand

Sometimes what you were called if you hand inked your type evenly without filling in the e’s, g’s etc with two dabbers.

Upper and lower case

The type case clearly ruled the compositors’ lives. But more than that, it changed the way we think about the alphabet. Look at the image of the type case. The case is tilted up slightly. All the capital letters are on the top, or the uppercase. The ones in the lower part of the case are, you guessed it, all lowercase.

Hot off the press

You can be forgiven for assuming that ‘hot’ in ‘hot off the press’ means the most up-to-date news. You’re right, but for the wrong reason. The paper coming off the press wasn’t literally hot, nor did the press itself heat up. It came from the ‘hot’ type cast on the Linotype machine. Invented by the German-born American immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler, this machine allowed compositors to type on a keyboard what they wanted to print. As they went along, the machine would cast the type right there out of molten metal (mostly lead). Considering how time-consuming and expensive it was to have a lot of ‘cold’ (previously cast) type around to set by hand, this was a major innovation. The machine got its name from the delighted reaction of the owner of the New York Tribune: ‘You have done it, you have produced a line o’ type.’


An electrotype plate that has partially worn away; you can see the layers. Electrotypes are a type of stereotype plates with a layer of copper.

In yet another example of fount tyranny, the process of stereotyping sought to address the chronic scarcity of type supplies by making molds of already set type, then casting whole metal plates of the page for reprinting later. That way you could take apart the type (called ‘distributing’) and immediately use it for other projects. Stereotyping was expensive, but imagine that poor compositor having to re-set some ridiculously popular book for the 26th time. A book had to reach a certain level of demand to merit the high expense of stereotyping, but it was worth it.

Take the idea of creating thousands of exact printed copies from a single original setting of type just one step further and you get the modern meaning: assuming that every person from a single group is the exact same.


Here is another printing innovation that snuck into our everyday speech with a simple step from the literal to the figurative. Cliché is the French word for stereotyping. But instead of casting whole plates from metal, the French would cast frequently used phrases in one block, ready to be set among the individual letters to save time. These were phrases used so much they became cliché. The French verb clicher means ‘to click’, which imitated the sound made when striking metal to create stereotype plates.


When an actor is chosen for a role because she fits a certain profile, she has been typecast. ‘Type’ and ‘cast’: those are two words you’ve seen a few times in this list. In one of the common processes for shaping metal such as type, you create a mold into which molten metal is poured. It then cools and hardens into the shape defined by the mould. This process is called casting, and the word typecast is believed to be a nod to it. The same metal shaping method is also where ‘to fit a mould’ comes from.

Make an impression

While this figure of speech is a metaphor for doing something that makes you memorable, it’s all tied up in a word for ‘printing’. The Latin word imprimere means ‘to press into or upon’. In English, rare book dealers tend to refer to a print run as an ‘impression’. It also survives on a slightly different track in our word imprint. Whether you’re dressed to impress, making a good impression, or impressive in your bow staff skills, you’re borrowing a term that made it into English thanks to the printing press.


This word, used as a shorthand to repeat something that’s already been said, ultimately comes from the Italian word detto, the past participle of ‘to say’. But the word gained steam in the early 20th century with a duplicating machine produced by DITTO, Inc. The company’s logo? A single set of quotation marks, which we use to mean ‘ditto’.


Although he seems a dangerous blade
When brandishing a knife,
He only ‘cuts a skeleton’,
And takes away no life.

‘Tis said he cannot sharpen tools
Like some apprentice lads,
But he at times can ‘set’ ‘old saws’,
And often ‘sets’ the ‘ads’ (adze).

He is a miser, for we find
He often locks up ‘coins’,
And, like a locomotive, he
Is forced to ‘run on lines’.

When he is in the best of health
He’s often ‘out of sorts’;
And though he oft composes lines
The muse he seldom courts.

He has on hand sufficient ‘caps’
To start a hatter’s shop;
And makes up ‘braces’ with a dash
To give his talents scope.

‘Tis true he naturally shrinks
From actions, fell and dire,
Yet has been known to take a ‘stick’
And set ‘A House on Fire’.

He is a sinner (all are so
By Adam eating apple),
And he may be a ‘Prod’ although
The ‘Father of the Chapel’.

Let adverse Fortune follow him
Till he pays Nature’s debt,
Hope will remain for him alone
When all his ‘stars’ are ‘set’.

 Long live Print! Long live Printers!


Article by Keith Solomon