Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

24 December 2009

Lowercase and Uppercase

Dear P.,

You asked me ‘Why are little letters called “lower case”?’

It’s one of those terms that are used these days without people questioning their origins (like ‘mileage’: young people brought up with kilometres don’t know about miles but still often talk of distance as mileage).

Back in the days before computerized photographic fonts or typefaces, words were assembled from pieces of metal, each with a letter (or ‘character’) raised on its surface back to front.

They were assembled in what was called a composing stick by a tradesman called a ‘compositor’. The capitals were kept in compartmented boxes arranged above the little letters, that’s why little letters are called lower case and capital letters are upper case. Some compartments are bigger than others because some letters are used more commonly than others. For example ‘e’ is the most common English character so a lot more space is allocated to ‘e’ than, say, ‘z’.
This is what the printer’s typecases looked like:

The compositor would pick the letters from their cases and make them into words. Thus if he wanted to make the word ‘print’ he would take each letter - which was back to front - and assemble, in the stick, ‘tnirp' which, when ink was rolled on to it, would come put as ‘print’ when pressed on to paper.
This is what a composing stick looked like:

The clip on the right was springloaded so that, as the letters were loaded, it could be pushed up against them to hold them in place.
There’s a lot more I could write about typesetting but we’ll leave it here for now. If you want to know any more tell me.
*Illustrations from: ‘Printing Types. Their History Forms and Use’. D.B.Updike. Second Edition. OUP 1937. Composing stick from front cover of ‘A Handbook of Printing Types’ W.S.Cowell Ltd, Ipswich 1948.


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By Don Donovan

About Me

My photo

Don Donovan: Biography

I was born on 20 January 1933, nine days before Hitler came to power in Germany, I grew up in south London. Although evacuated during the phoney war and the quieter times I lived in and out of air raid shelters during the blitz and experienced both V1 and V2 attacks on London. Left grammar school in 1948 aged 15 substantially undereducated. I wanted to go to art school but because of family ‘poverty’ joined a commercial art studio in the West End. I was, thereafter, variously a messenger boy, commercial artist and typographer. I was in the Royal Air Force from 1951 to 1953 when the only useful thing I did was to take part in King George VI’s funeral parade.

In 1955 I married Patricia O’Donnell, a RADA graduate, at that time playing opposite Derek Nimmo, they were juvenile leads in a touring repertory company. He went on to great success because he had a funny voice.

We came to New Zealand in 1960 where I worked in advertising. At length I became managing director of one of the companies of whose holding company (the largest domestic advertising complex in New Zealand) I was also a proprietor and shareholder. I left the industry in 1990 when my company was bought out by American interests. My timing was brilliant, at that point my first book had been published and the next was on its way.

We have two daughters and four grand-children.

Now, apart from writing, I function as a self-educated grumpy old man.

Books & Writings

‘New Zealand Odyssey’, with Euan Sarginson, Heinemann-Reed, 1989.

‘One Man’s Heart Attack’, New House, 1990. (A special edition of this book was purchased by CIBA-Geigy for distribution to NZ doctors).

‘Open 7 Days’, Random Century, October 1991.

‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’ by Saint Publishing in 1995 followed by:
‘New Zealand House & Cottage’ in 1997. (Saint Publishing have also published calendars for the years 1994 to 2004 using my watercolour illustrations).

‘The Wastings’, my first novel was published in July 1999 by Hazard Press. Although an international subject it had very limited distribution, only in New Zealand, and the rights have reverted to me. (Colin Dexter read 'The Wastings' and wrote to me: 'I enjoyed and admired "The Wastings"... a beautifully written work... a splendid debut in crime fiction... More please!'.)

Also the texts of photographic books:
‘Colourful New Zealand’
‘New Zealand in Colour’
‘Top of the South’
‘Above Auckland’
‘Hauraki Gulf Destinations’
‘Bay of Plenty’
and a compilation of photographs and quotations titled ‘Anzac Memories’ 2004 all published by New Holland.

My written and illustrated book, ‘Country Churches of New Zealand’ was published in October 2002 by New Holland, who also published ‘Rural New Zealand’ 2004 (photographs and text), and a series of four humorous books of photographs and quotations in 2004 and 2005 titled ‘Woolly Wisdom’, ‘Chewing the Cud’, ‘Fowl Play’, and ‘Pig Tales’. My most recent book was published in August 2006 by New Holland, titled ‘Political Animals’.

Over the years I have written for NZ Herald, Heritage Magazine, Next Magazine and various local and overseas travel and general interest media.