5 idioms from the printing press

By Sarah Rose de Villiers

The art of printing may have fallen away as fancy technology and online media replace ink on yellowed paper. However, practices from the printing press might live on in our language.

Many idioms and expressions that were borne out of the printing trade continue to be used today, says Richard Burmeister, the curator of the Eastern Star Press Museum.

The museum is home to John Fairbairn’s editorial desk, a restored 120 year-old Wharfdale printing press, countless little metal letters and a multitude of fun facts, including the origins of five familiar idioms.

  1. Hot off the press!

SRdeVilliers_PrintingPress_5Despite its mint and fresh meaning, “hot off the press” has origins dating back to the linotypes that printers started using in 1901.

“Linotyping creates a metal, lead slug,” said Richard [Will change to his surname]. “How it worked is that they had a keyboard and a machine that melted lead, which they pumped up to the top of the machine. If you pressed the key, T, the molding for T would come up. So they would type, T, O, D, A, Y, and the lead would run into the mold and create a whole line for TODAY’s issue. It would create the slug at the bottom and that would be your line of type.”

“Once the line was finished, they’d pull a lever, the slug would slide down and it was ready to be set. When the slug came out it was hot, and if that went straight to press it was hot off the press.”

  1. Oh so cliché

It’s an onomatopoeic French word and it means ‘overused’ – but do you know where ‘cliché’ comes from?

“The word comes from the printing press, which made the sound of cli-ché, cli-ché, cli-ché. The same thing happening again and again and again.”

  1. SRdeVilliers_PrintingPress_6The mystery of uppercase and lowercase letters

Uppercase letters are not superior to lowercase letters, but apparently they earned their name for a reason.

“These are the printer’s type cases,” he said, pointing to shelves of shallow drawers containing carefully arranged groups of metal letters.

“In the upper case, we’ve got the capital letters. In the lower case, we’ve got the lower, smaller letters. So uppercase and lowercase come from these drawers.”

  1. Please mind your Ps and Qs

SRdeVilliers_PrintingPress_7Beside the type rack in the museum, a little plaque reminds the reader where the idiom comes from:

The Ps and Qs are next to each other in the type case. They are mirror images of each other and thus very easy to confuse. So, printers working with them have to mind their Ps and Qs, which is the origin of the saying reminding us to take care of the details.

  1. Sort of out of sorts

Typographers and their boxes of letters can be blamed for this expression, as a shortage of sorts was always an unwelcome affair.

SRdeVilliers_PrintingPress_8“Individual pieces of metal with letters on them were known as sorts. A case of sorts only had so many m’s, so many s’s, and so on and so forth. The problem was they used to run out. So sometimes typographers would get halfway through the last page of the newspaper and they’d run out of m’s. How did they feel? Out of sorts.”

“And they really did, because if you ran out of m’s, they had to buy in at sort prices, which is three times the amount of buying the whole set – and they really didn’t like that.”

It seems that the printing press is not entirely forgotten, by either the museum or in the language that we continue to use.

But what expressions will we be leaving to the next generation?

Lol, Google it.


This article was originally published on Life is an Exhibition 

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