March 25, 2014

The All-Too-Literal Origins of Lowercase and Uppercase Lettering –

Filed under: Typeface and Type Design — Janelle Sullivan @ 2:22 pm

By Janelle Sullivan

letter-caseEver since Kindergarten we have heard the terms upper case and lower case letters. We learned at a very young age that upper case letters always started a sentence and should be used when we are writing proper nouns. Lower case letters are what the majority of our writing was comprised of, regular words that fills the pages of our books. This is how we learned to read and write, with this usage in mind. By the time we become adults, this lesson is deeply ingrained in our brains. But did you ever wonder where these terms come from?

The Original Alphabet

Originally, the alphabet consisted of only one letter case. All letters were upper case, also called capital letters, large or majuscule letters. Text was written in a well-defined manner, with both upper and lower boundaries, to keep the print uniform in size and easier to read. When the letters were written quickly, they were often smaller in size, with more rounded edges. These smaller letters were often outside of the boundaries on a written page, usually dipping below the line. This lead to a distinction between upper case and lower case letters, also known as small or minuscule letters. Many cultures adopted a style of alphabet with large and small letters, each having their own rules about how to use them.

Along Comes the Printing Press

The terms upper case and lower case actually come from the use of the printing press. Typesetting was done by hand and this could be a long and tiresome project. A type case would be stored in the vicinity of the printing press and held all of the letters used in the typesetting process. Lower case letters were stored in a type case that was kept within easy reach, because these letters were used most often. The upper case type case was stored higher up, requiring a longer reach to access the letters. This made sense because this letter case was used far less often. So, as this history lesson goes, upper and lower case does not really have anything to do with the size of the letter itself. It is all about where the type case was stored.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am obsessed with typography. Styles and sizes of print can change the entire look of any printing project. I can experiment with type styles for hours, just trying to find exactly the right combination to suit my project. All of you who know me also know that I am not really a history buff. I probably can’t give you a list of important historical dates, but I do know my typography history, and this bit of information is cool. The words struck my artistic chord when I discovered that they painted a picture, and didn’t just describe size. So many words in our language are derived from unusual places and it is an interesting adventure looking for that origin.


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