Reading The Histories

Greek hoplitesI hadn’t always wanted to read Herodotus. He has a mixed reputation among historians, often cited as an unreliable source, gossip monger or simply as a fantasist. Sure, he’s the “father of history” as Cicero called him (or at least of historical writing) and penned the earliest surviving work of non-fiction, but he often doesn’t get the respect that, say, Thucydides gets for his efforts (dry as they might be at times). Herodotus has even been called the ‘father of lies‘ by some modern historians.

Steve Donoghue noted:

Herodotus’s widely acknowledged vulnerability has always been his affection for thomata, the amazing marvel-stories that fill his account and are so scorned by Thucydides.

Yet, you cannot dismiss him lightly. Twenty-five hundred later, his voice still rings out: The Histories is an entertaining, sprawling masterpiece that is referred to and remarked on even today. As Edward Gibbon – the author of the great Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote,

Herodotus sometimes writes for children, and sometimes for philosophers.

I had downloaded Dan Carlin’s lengthy, three-part podcast series on the Persian Empire and its wars with Greece (King of Kings at Hard Core History; great, rambling stuff by the way) for a drive to and from Windsor, last month. I found his enthusiasm for Herodotus was contagious. I decided to buy a copy to see for myself. But which one?

Here’s the problem: translation. Which one(s) to choose of the dozen or more available? I say ones because I am often as likely to buy more than one translation of any work simply to compare them. And yes, I did buy two versions of The Histories (see below).

Almost everything I read written prior to about 1550 is a translation. Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Egyptian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Sumerian, Chinese… languages which I don’t speak. Which means I have to depend on the accuracy and style of the translator. And these past few years, I’ve been reading a lot more material from the classical era (i.e. Greek and Roman). So translation is a very important topic for me.

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Fowler for the 21st Century

Fowler's latest editionOn the desk of every writer, every reporter, every editor, every PR director and every communications officer is a small library of reference books. A good dictionary (Oxford, American Heritage, Merriam Webster, Random House but gods forbid, never a generic Webster’s). A thesaurus (likely Roget’s). A style guide (CP for Canadians, or AP for Americans… Canadians likely have both).  A dictionary of quotations (because the print version is reliable as a source, and the Internet isn’t). And a usage guide.

That’s de rigeur for these professions, and the very minimum that they likely have in front of them every time they write or edit. To ignore these authorities or their guidance would be unprofessional and most professionals will have more of such titles than these basics.

There are many of the latter usage guides to choose from. Strunk and White. Partridge. Gowers. Flesch. Garner. Follett. Wallraff. Pinker. Dozens of books about grammar also fit the bill. The real language wonks have the encyclopedic Chicago Manual of Style (the latest 16th edition…). But Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage will likely hold pride of place. After all, it’s THE guide. We all have at least one copy of it. Writers and editors, that is.

Fowler’s has been the go-to guide for writers and editors since its first publication in 1926, now more a bit of linguistic paleontology than a working guide. It was revised in 1937. It’s still in print, though, nearly a century later. It was revised and edited by Ernest Gowers in the famous second edition, first published in 1965, revised in 1983 and reprinted many times. That’s the version most of my generation used and it’s still a workhorse. But it’s now more than 50 years old, and ,a bit fusty, but Gowers was also a canny wordsmith. As he wrote of Fowler in his introduction:

The truth is that the prime mover of his moralizing was not so much grammatical grundyism as the instincts of a craftsman. ‘Proper words in proper places’, said Swift, ‘make the true definition of a style.’ Fowler thought so too; and, being a perfectionist, could not be satisfied with anything that seemed to him to fall below the highest standard either in the choice of precise words or in their careful and orderly arrangement.

He knew, he said, that ‘what grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes’. ‘And yet’, he added, ‘the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. He has had his reward in his book’s finding a place on the desk of all those who regard writing as a craft, and who like what he called ‘the comfort that springs from feeling that all is shipshape’

Grundyism? Doesn’t that make you want to read it? If so you can find it online in PDF format. Or open your own, well-thumbed edition to page 19.

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Designing Type

Designing TypeKaren Cheng’s 2005  book, Designing Type, is the third of the recent books on typography I have received*. Of the three, it is the most technical, appealing to the typophile and design geek more than the average reader. But it’s also a reference for layout and graphic artists looking to choose a specific font for a work.

If your goal is to actually design a typeface, she helps appreciate the subtleties of design that differentiate and separate typefaces and letterforms. But it’s not a book about design.

Most books on type and typography focus on the result: working for the combination of readability and legibility that create an emotional, psychological and intellectual effect on the viewer. Cheng takes us on an almost microscopic tour of type, zooming in on the minute parts.

There is a prevailing theory that type should be ‘invisible’ in that the reader doesn’t see the face, simply benefits from its effect. And, I suppose, for the average reader that makes sense. Designers usually don’t want the narrative to be interrupted by a closer examination of the font. Writers don’t want readers to lose track of the plot or theme in order to puzzle over the lack or presence of serifs. But a lot of work and time goes into creating a typeface that accomplishes that goal.

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Frutiger vs Palatino

In a recent review of Sarah Hyndman’s book, Why Fonts Matter, I casually commented that,

You can no more adequately comment on the relevance and impact on the viewer of, say, Frutiger versus Palatino, without discussing the design and layout in which it is set…

FrutigerThe point of which was not to single out those two typefaces as much as to suggest the debate between how readers respond to sans-serif and serif faces (respectively).

Fruitiger is a modern, humanist sans-serif type designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1975. Palatino is a serif type designed by Hermann Zapf, in 1948, to simulate classical typefaces. I like and have used both.

PalatinoI’ve always been a staunch advocate of serif faces like Palatino for body copy in longer texts such as brochures, books, magazines. Everywhere type is dense, continuous, flowing I’ve preferred them.

Everything I’ve read has lead me to believe that serifs guide the reader better than their lack. Conventional wisdom has so dictated for centuries. Studies have supported the anecdotal conclusions.

But the two recent books I received (the other being Sarah Beier’s Reading Letters, also reviewed) are both set in sans-serif for their body. Hyndman’s is set in Franklin Gothic (designed by Morris Benton in 1902)*, and Beier’s in Ovink (designed by Beier herself, in 2011).

If type designers use what others in their field might argue is an unconventional choice, I figured I should pay attention.

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Reading Letters: Designing for Legibility

Reading Letters
The human brain is truly a remarkable machine.* We can see a bunch of lines and in that same brain turn them into an M and know it’s not a V or an N or a K or W. Yet M isn’t a ‘thing’ – it’s an abstract representation of a sound that itself has no concrete meaning outside the Mmmmm of meditation.

When you mentally assemble a bunch of other lines and sticks and squiggles, those sounds form a larger abstraction: a word: MOON. Now we have substance. And that can be used to create even larger collections of abstractions – sentences – that together we ascribe a greater meaning to: THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOON.

That’s a perfectly clear sentence. Nonsensical, yes, but within a tiny fraction of a second, your brain built all the bits and squiggles into a structured concept that made some sort of sense. You can read it; every word is clear and expresses something you can picture. That’s a remarkable feat of cognition that borders on magical.

But change just one letter, replace, say an O with an R and THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MORN seems much stranger, more nonsensical. Harder to imagine. THE COW JUMPED OVER THE MOOT or THE MOAN even more so. Familiarity helped us build the first; the unfamiliar – just one letter changed – made us stop and think about it. But how is it that MOON, MORN and MOOT are clear to us, even when the sentence isn’t logical, but assemblies like REET, CABIT, DRAMFIBBLE aren’t?

What about acrasial, brabeum, crocitation? Nidifice, ovablastic, patration? Saburrate, tecnolatry, yelve? Those are actually all real words, once in use, but long since fallen from use, forgotten and mostly lost to the language.

You can read these words, you can pronounce them. They obey the rules of our language construction – unlike, say pkbrynzg or tlmrifvy – but they still don’t make sense. Your brain has no familiarity, no mental foothold that lets you make sense of them because they don’t conform.

But a lost word like snobographer you can break into bits – snob and grapher – and probably work out that it means someone who writes about snobs, even if you’ve never seen the word previously. It has familiar bits.

Sophie Beier‘s 2012 book, Reading letters: Designing for Legibility is almost the polar opposite of Sarah Hyndman’s book, reviewed last week. She looks at those little sticks and lines and squiggles and explores all the science and art behind how we make abstract symbols into meaning.

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Why Fonts Matter

Why Fonts Matter
The first problem I have when receiving a new book on typography is that I spend far too much time looking up the typefaces described or sampled therein, and searching for them online, instead of reading. Then I start looking at (and critiquing) the typefaces chosen for the book itself. It’s a trees-not-the-forest kind of wonderment that comes over me.

As I am wont to do, I sit back on my deck in the evening sun, glass of wine in hand, and a large pile of previously-purchased typography books beside me, so I can make the introductions. Probably not necessary, since I suspect they already know one another. But it’s comforting to have them all together.

That’s just my own obsession with type and typography. There are, those peccadilloes aside, many great delights to be had in receiving a new book about typography. To open a page filled with characters, colours, shapes… it’s almost a childish joy. I trust some of you know that emotion, already. Sometimes I think talking about type is a bit like talking about Zen. From the outside, it seems suspiciously like mumbo jumbo that only the insiders can understand. But stick with me, grasshopper.*

Sarah Hyndman’s book, and the latest in my collection, Why Fonts Matter, doesn’t frame itself by asking if they matter. Of course they do. What she wants to tell is is how they matter, how they affect us. How they make us feel. How they direct us to buying, eating, music and other daily choices. And, of course, how they communicate their verbal and non-verbal messages. Very Mcluhanistic, the message and the medium and all that. And that’s in great part what Hyndman wants to tell us.

And like the Zen master’s stick thwacking sharply over the novice’s shoulders to spur awareness (and rouse us from sleep), Hyndman startles and awakens us. In a pleasant way, of course. A gentle stick. It’s meant as an interactive journey, not a lecture. And she has a light touch, and a mildly sardonic humour, too.

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Power, ambition, backstabbing

Hollow CrownPower grabs. Backstabbing. Lust. Ambition. Conniving. Hypocrisy. A weak but well-meaning ruler. A grasping second in command who viciously usurps power. A bureaucrat jealous of the nobles, jockeying for power and trading favours to get his way. Sleazy nobles selling their loyalty for petty trinkets. A cast of despicable, grasping characters all out for themselves, oblivious of the cost of their machinations on the common people, and willing to tread on anyone who gets in their way. Machiavellian plots and secret meetings. The destruction of state institutions and facilities. Heads rolling.

Collingwood Council? No: Shakespeare’s three-part extravaganza, Henry VI. Although you have to admit I had you there, since the resemblance seems so uncanny. A Readers’ Guide to Shakespeare (ed. Joseph Rosenblum) notes of part III:

Hatred ambition and greed are keynotes, while duty, trust, tradition and self-restraint are increasingly rare.

Boy, doesn’t that sound just like Collingwood Council? In Part I, Richard Plantagenet says of the recently deceased Mortimer that he was, “Choked with ambition of the meaner sort.” Sure sounds to me like someone – or ones – we know at the council table. And this description of Henry Beaufort, the Bishop of Winchester (from part I), also has undeniable echoes in a local personality (or maybe personalities…):

Winchester is portrayed as a corrupt, power-hungry bishop who buys his elevation to cardinal and who seeks to overthrow the rightful, secular authority of the Protector.

But of course, it’s not about them. The Protector is the Duke of Gloucester, by the way (okay, you already knew that…).

Henry VI forms two of the three movies in the latest Hollow Crown series, presented by the BBC. Two, you say? I thought there were three parts… well, yes there are, but the directors pruned away some of the slower bits and condensed the whole thing into two parts. Probably a wise move; the latter two parts are considered great plays, but the first (actually written later than the first two) is considered on of the Bard’s weaker efforts. But recent revivals of the trilogy, no matter how long, have drawn praise.
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Uncommunicative again

front pageDid you receive your “spring” newsletter from the town? The one delivered on the first day of summer (or later), lacking any actual news… yes, that one. To me it appears as clumsily formatted and poorly written as all the previous issues. Another one that likely wouldn’t even get a passing grade in a high school art class.

Since the town continues its race to the bottom of the design barrel, I won’t reiterate all the problems in detail, since they just repeat those already exposed. I’ll just throw in a few comments (read here and here and here for my previous analyses). Needless to say, nothing has been corrected, nothing improved, at least in content, design, layout or copywriting.

front pageThat grinding sound, by the way, is my teeth as I peruse this. Sorry for the noise. Bad design combined with bad typography always sets my teeth on edge.If it does for you, too, you may wonder who is responsible for this?

That’s easy. In any corporate hierarchy, the person at the top is where the buck stops. It’s a matter of corporate honour and ethics for the leader to take responsibility for his or her staff’s actions and output. The captain goes down with the ship. After all, that’s what a real leader does.

So here we expect the interim CAO reads and approves every communication that reflects and represents the town. As the top staff member, paid $225,000 a year, this is his responsibility.

A cunning planSo why does he permit what I perceive as a supremely shoddy effort to be issued again; one that is so easily open to criticism, not to mention snickering and guffawing? It remains a mystery.

A cunning plan must be at work, as Baldrick might say. Let me imagine some scenarios for you…

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The definition of evil

EvilI try to choose my words carefully. Words have power, words can create emotions, words linger and stick with us. Words matter. Words can be tools of great precision and effect. So when I hear or read them being abused, misused or simply inappropriately chosen, my hackles rise. I want to make corrections. I want to insert my idea of the better choice into the sentence. My Facebook followers know how I react (and react too often…) to misplaced apostrophes, misspellings and improper verb tense.

It’s the aging editor in me, I suppose, plus my passionate love of writing and of language. I grant that my skills in writing and editing are rustier than in my halcyon days, but my inner editor still raises its head from time to time, demanding recognition. So I try as best I can these days to choose my own words in part to avoid hearing that shrill voice.

I don’t, for example, swear casually very often. Not from some prurient reaction to “bad” words, but simply that swearing has potent emotional impact and if you use it casually, it loses its power. People cannot recognize whether you’re angry or happy if you toss frequent invective into your everyday word salad. Swear only when you want to express very strong emotion and it’s very effective. Swear constantly and you simply show bad language skills.

I also don’t use the word evil casually. Far too many people use it when they mean inconvenient, annoying, abrasive or controversial. Sometimes it’s something accidental or unintentional they label evil. That’s just hyperbole, part of the social media trend use superlatives to grab attention.

I’ve heard it used in relation to natural disasters like tornadoes and floods, but while the results may be tragic and appalling, weather is neutral; neither good nor bad. I want a more precise use of the word.

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The gems of Salomé

SaloméI was perhaps 11 or 12 when I first encountered Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé. Some of it, at least.

At the time, I knew nothing of Wilde, his writing, or even much about theatre in general. After all, I was in grade seven or eight. It would be a few years before I encountered (and developed a passion for) Shakespeare and other playwrights. But Wilde I actually discovered first.

Faced with the dramatic challenges of their own – my mother was either still in hospital or had only recently been released and was struggling with the paralyzing results of her stroke – my parents allowed me to make the trip downtown to spend a day at the museum on my own. I would do that many, many times in those years. A solitary visit, a day spent in wonder and imagination.

Allowed may be a kind word. They were struggling with serious life issues, and I was, admittedly, a bit of a handful with a wayward sense of independence.

I figured out how to get to the museum, alone and by public transport, from our home in distant, suburban Scarborough to the downtown, and went off on my own, paying my way with money earned through my paper route. My parents accepted my excursions after the fact as a fait accompli, although not without stern warnings. It was not the destination, perhaps, that concerned them, but the hour-long trip by myself, negotiating buses, transfers and finally the subway.

Still, I returned every night intact, unmolested, and richer for the experience. A day in the museum was for me like a day in Oz or some other magical kingdom. The dinosaurs, the mummies, the urns, the totem poles, the stuffed animals frozen behind glass.

The words from Wilde were written in raised letters on a wall in the entrance to the mineralogy hall of the Royal Ontario Museum. It was always the second place I always visited after the invertebrate paleontology hall. I believe they are still there, today.

I copied them down into the notebook I always carried then, long since lost, but the words remained scribbled in my heart. They moved me in unexpected ways for a pre-teen, and still move me today. And I still carry notebooks to record such things, although they tend to be used for more prosaic purposes, since moments of wonder seem fewer and farther between these days.

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Amateur layout and bad ads. Again.

Stinky!I see the Town of Collingwood is still letting the EB layout its full page of ads in the paper.  Tragic. Embarrassing. Cringe-worthy.

The latest back page mashup has as its first ad the worst of the worst sort of ad layout, the sort only amateurs would create. It’s too wide for any human being to comfortably and efficiently read. Then there’s the second page with its fat partner in layout crime.

It’s embarrassing for a municipality to be thus represented. The only saving grace is that no one reads the EB any more, so not very many people see how bad it is. But those who do see it, wince.

Why, oh why, does the town continue to permit amateurs to design its advertising? Doesn’t anyone realize these represent the town? They affect our reputation?

These wide ads – and several of the smaller ads – break pretty much every rule in every design and typographic book. High school students could craft more elegant, readable, exciting ads. Maybe elementary school kids could, too.

I’ve written about these embarrassing, amateur efforts in the past and how they hurt the town’s image. Even a bungling non-designer like me can see they are ill-suited for presenting a professional, polished image. I suspect these are designed by the janitor, or maybe someone who delivers the paper. Certainly not by a graphic designer.

Anyone can read the basic books on layout and design to learn enough to see these are awful. Truly awful. Why can’t anyone in town hall see it?

But, you ask, why would the town give the job to someone trained and experienced in that art? That would break this term’s trend.

Council took the management of the water utility from experienced professionals on the board and gave it to inept councillors. Council kicked the experienced, professional, provincially-recognized winner of several awards and honours, the CEO of Collus, off the board and put the interim CAO in his place. The precedent for replacing people who know what they’re doing with those who don’t was set early in this term.

Council cancelled its individual subscriptions to the monthly Municipal World magazine, the best Canadian journal for municipal governance and politics, read by dedicated municipal politicians across the country. Why? Because council felt it knows everything already and doesn’t need peer advice. Besides, reading is hard work.

Council has turned to obscure one-and-two-person consulting firms few if any of us have ever heard of for recommendations on big, important, strategic issues that affect the town’s well-being, rather than listen to respected, worldwide firms like KPMG.

The arrogance of amateurism is this council’s legacy. The inmates are running the asylum. These ads are regular, graphic reminders of that.

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Type Crimes and Taxes

tax guideType crime is the term author Ellen Lupton uses in her book, Thinking With Type, to describe egregiously bad typography. That description came to mind as I perused the latest fluff mailer from our MP; the so-called “Tax Guide.” So-called because it isn’t a guide: it’s the usual, dreary Conservative whack-a-mole propaganda about how great they were when in power and how evil the Liberals are now.

In fact, if you want actual information, the publication has a final page where you have to send in to get it (or call the Canada Revenue Agency). And unless you’re an accountant, you’ll need more info because this “guide” is pretty vague at its best and has no specific information about filling in your tax form.

Dreary is right: in terms of design, layout and typography, it’s simply awful. I grade it somewhere between the abysmal colour advertising produced by the Town of Collingwood, and the even worse greyscale newsletter. It also has some grammatical errors that a real editor would have caught. *

And why is her information awkwardly centred at the bottom of the front page instead of flush right?

tax guide_03

Look at the sample above (pages 4-5). The first thing that strikes the reader is the vertical density of the type. The leading (the space between the lines) is far too tight, leading to a drabness of copy (in some paragraphs, descenders of one line touch the ascenders of the next!).

The thinness of the body typeface, too, adds to the overall greyness.

You should notice that the leading in the stacked headlines is inconsistent, too.  And why stacked? There’s plenty of room to spread them across the page. That stacking creates odd, disconnected white spaces that leave the reader’s eye bewildered where to go next. Across to the icons on the right? Down to the words below?

The vertical and horizontal lines around two sides of each section increase the sense of funereal confinement and make each section look like an obituary. And that little diamond on the left end of the horizontal fencing keeps drawing the eye to it.

The background attack-ad graphic at the upper right (“clawed-back for 2016”) impairs clarity and readability. If you look closely, you’ll see that the author used double spaces after end punctuation in sentences, not the proper single space. The paragraph indent is too narrow for the line length, too.

Clawed back doesn’t need a hyphen in either instance. But the benefits were not “clawed back” – they were reduced to former levels. The proper definition of a claw back is, “…money or benefits that are distributed and then taken back as a result of special circumstances.”

And don’t get me started on the run-on sentences, the bureaucratese language and the byzantine descriptions of how our tax system works replete in this work.

By the way, American travellers have an $800 duty-free exemption when returning, compared to Canada’s measly $200. Maybe it’s not something to crow so loudly about.

The headline font for sections appears to be Arial, the body Times New Roman (both over-used and boooooooring….) and the page heads are Agenda bold or perhaps Humanist 521. Why some words are in inverse type is beyond me, nor can I fathom the reason for the inappropriately wide space between some of the inverted words and the other words in the headline.

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The Crafty Crow and the Doves

Fat CrowOnce upon a time, an old crow lived by the seaside. He had grown fat over the years because he was too lazy to work for his food. He preferred to sit than fly. He followed the other animals to get their leftovers, taking what wasn’t his, and annoying them by begging for some of their food. The other animals shunned him. They had chased him from many places, until he found himself on the coast. He was unwanted and unloved.

One day, a flight of doves appeared. They were young, inexperienced doves fresh from the forest, who didn’t know their way around the water’s edge. They looked confused and worried. The crow flew over to them.

“Are you lost?” he asked them. “Do you need some assistance?”

“Yes,” said the doves’ leader. “We are new here. We don’t know what’s good to eat. We don’t know where to nest so we are safe from the winds and the foxes.”

“I will show you,” said the crow. “I have lived here a long time. I know everything about the shoreline. Listen to me and you’ll be fed and safe. But beware. Don’t listen to other animals. They will try to trick you. Some will hurt you. Only I can keep you safe.”

“All right,” said the dove. “We trust you. You are a nice, old crow. Surely a crow wouldn’t harm doves because we are all birds. We will let you show us the way.”

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Just My Type

BemboThose long legs. Gently sloping shoulders. The swelling curves above and below. The sophisticated line of the throat. Everything to attract me, to draw my aging eye, to warm my heart. The sensual Bembo. She’s my kind of type.

Bembo is one of the great Renaissance typefaces that has since been revived. It was designed by Francesco Griffo and first used in a book of poems and essays by scholar Pietro Bembo, published by printer Aldus Manutius, in 1495. Monotype recut it for modern use in 1929, digitized it in 1990 and more recently, in 2005, redesigned it for today’s printing as Bembo Book.

Bembo Book’s designer, Robin Nicholas, says this of the typeface:

Bembo was drawn to embody the elegance and fine design features of the original but marry them with the consistency of contemporary production methods… (Bembo Book) is slightly narrower than existing digital versions of Bembo, it is a little more economical in use and gives excellent colour to continuous pages of text. Ascending lowercase letters are noticeably taller than capitals, giving an elegant, refined look to the text.

Adobe also made a Bembo typeface, but it seems to have drawn criticism from the admittedly rarefied community of type aficionados. Thomas Christensen, who writes The Typehead Chronicles, says this:

Adobe Bembo, however, has received a lot of criticism in the typophilic community for not living up to the quality of the metal version. It is said to be light and spindly and to produce a palid gray page. (Some of this criticism may be overdone.)
Some recommend Minion as an alternative, but I am not a fan of Minion. Another proposed alternative is Dante, but I think it has an entirely different feel. There are a couple of new versions of Bembo-like digital fonts that might be worth looking into. One is JY Aetna by Jack Yan. Another is the new Yale typeface by Matthew Carter, but it is only “available to Yale employees, students, and authorized contractors for use in Yale publications and communications,” a restriction that is a giant step backward.
Now, in 2005, Monotype has released a new digital version of Bembo, called Bembo Book. It is said that this version restored many of the admirable qualities of the letterpress Bembo…

Although dismissed by Christensen, Robert Bringhurst’s book, The Elements of Typographic Style, is set in Minion (with captions in Scala Sans), possibly because it doesn’t intrude into the language and the message (Bringhurst shows many typefaces in his examples). For the most part, a typeface should not be visible to the reader any more than a  window pane is to someone looking outside.

But it will be visible to a typographer or graphic artist, much like one magician knows another magician’s tricks. The trained eye will see how the text flows, how the eye is directed, how well the elements balance.

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Teas or Tisanes?

Real tea plant not some herbal shitI suppose it’s crotchety of me, but whenever I hear the term “herbal tea” used to refer to an infusion of leaves or fruits that contains no actual tea, I get shirty.

They’re actually not tea at all, they’re tisanes, a pleasant French word that means’herbal infusion.’ They should be called such and labelled appropriately in stores.

Tea is, properly a plant originally from China: Camellia sinensis. How the word came to be used as a descriptor for any hot drink in which leaves were infused or decocted, I don’t know, but it’s lazy language; misleading and dishonest.*

Tea drink is, of course, an infusion, but not all infusions are tea. If it doesn’t contain actual tea leaves, it should not be called a tea. Period.

The original word tea itself (te and its Cantonese equivalent, cha) have specifically meant Camelia sinensis in China since at least the eighth century CE. That’s what they meant when European traders started bringing the stuff back. The Online Etymological Dictionary explains some of its European use from the 16th century:

The distribution of the different forms of the word in Europe reflects the spread of use of the beverage. The modern English form, along with French thé, Spanish te, German Tee, etc., derive via Dutch thee from the Amoy form, reflecting the role of the Dutch as the chief importers of the leaves (through the Dutch East India Company, from 1610). Meanwhile, Russian chai, Persian cha, Greek tsai, Arabic shay, and Turkish çay all came overland from the Mandarin form.
First known in Paris 1635, the practice of drinking tea was first introduced to England 1644. Meaning “afternoon meal at which tea is served” is from 1738. Slang meaning “marijuana” (which sometimes was brewed in hot water) is attested from 1935, felt as obsolete by late 1960s. Tea ball is from 1895.

“Herbal tea” might be derived from the Latin: herba thea means “tea herb”(LAtin was still more-or-less a living language in the 16th century) or maybe it, too, came via the Dutch traders: herba thee (which also means tea herb). Either way, we ended up with “herbal tea.”

Whatever its origin, it is incorrect. It’s like pointing to a dandelion and calling it a rose garden because they’re both plants. Or handing someone a cola and calling it a cold coffee because they both have caffeine. The only thing tea and tisanes have in common is the hot water.

Why aren’t these non-tea infusions called “herbal coffees” of “herbal colas”? That would make as much sense as calling them herbal teas.

Continue reading “Teas or Tisanes?”

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