Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Word of the day: brevier

It’s National Dictionary Day (Noah Webster was born on October 16, 1758). So here’s a word I recently looked up:

[From Webster’s Second.]

I puzzled over this word in Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading, in which a drop of water falls on a page of a book, and

Through the drop several letters turned from brevier into pica, having swollen as if a reading glass were lying over them.
I like the Webster’s Second entry, with its manicule. But Webster’s Third offers a definition of greater precision: “a size of type between minion and bourgeois, approximately 8 point.” And a different etymology:
prob. fr. D[utch], lit., breviary, fr. M[edieval]L[atin] breviarium; fr. the use of this size of type in the printing of breviaries in 16th cent. Holland & Belgium.
Webster’s Third defines minion as “an old size of type of approximately 7-point and between nonpareil and brevier.” Why minion? The word comes from “F[rench] mignonne, fem. of mignon,” meaning “darling.” I can imagine a scene at a printer’s shop: “What a darling little typeface!” “I know — let us call it minion.”

Bourgeois is “an old size of type (approximately 9 point) between brevier and long primer.” The Oxford English Dictionary says that the word may be “a transferred use of bourgeois middle class,” suggesting either a type size between smaller and larger ones, or type used in “small books suitable for the use of the middle classes.”

Back to Nabokov, and letters turning from brevier into pica. Anyone of a certain age will remember pica, at least vaguely, from typewriter days. Webster’s Third: “a size of typewriter type with 10 characters to the linear inch and six lines to the vertical inch.” But earlier than that: “an old size of type between small pica and english” and “a size of type equivalent to 12 point.” And a surprising suspected origin:
prob. fr. M[edieval]L[atin], collection of church rules, prob. fr. L, magpie; perh. fr. its use in printing the service book and its resemblance to the colors of the bird.
So from small to large: nonpareil, minion, brevier, bourgeois, long primer, small pica, pica, english. This dictionary search has widened in two directions. I’ll leave nonpareil, long primer, and english for a fellow celebrant of National Dictionary Day.

Related reading
All OCA dictionary posts (Pinboard)

comments: 4

Daughter Number Three said...

So many great type terms no longer needed or used... and different ones for each country's system. I imagine you know the bit of history about the effect of the Chicago fire on standardizing type sizes in the U.S.?

Michael Leddy said...

No, not at all. Must learn!

Daughter Number Three said...

The picas and points that are still used today (where 72 points or 6 picas = an inch... sort of) was a standardization that happened after several foundries were destroyed by the fire. Before that, each foundry in the U.S. had its own system, which was probably partly thought to be a competitive advantage or way of keeping their customers or something, but also was causing lots of problems. Later, Adobe made the 72 points = an inch exactly when they created PostScript... so metal type measurements do not equal computer measurements.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, DN3. I’m reminded of the flexibility of timekeeping before the railroad.

I found this page today and am going to post a link to it tomorrow.