An extraordinary league of printers with a secret language

Written by Lauren Hansen

There is a group of people whose work has had great impact on the way we speak. To those in it, it is like a secret club. This club is exclusive, with influence in everyone’s lives. It is everywhere yet often unseen. This club is hard work to get into, and members never fully leave.

This club is the league of printers, communicating via jargon that would come to shape language.

Composing stick, furniture, chase, cut, type, key, quoin, slug, spacing material, case, not to mention the intricate anatomy of a typeface, are a few terms that were thrown at the students in the Book Arts Collaborative at Ball State University. These terms are a part of what feels like a secret language, developed by letterpress printers, that is still used in common language today.

Tier Morrow is a freshman member of the Book Arts Collaborative, where she spends around 15 to 20 hours a week hand-setting type in between going to class.

She didn’t find it intimidating at first; she found it to be more like a new and exciting challenge. She attributes her excitement to her experience as a journalism student: where jargon is used on the very first day of class.

“When I walked into my first journalism class as a freshman, people throw the words ‘lede’ at you and ‘nut graf’. If you want to do it you’re going to learn it,” said Morrow.

After all that time spent in the shop, Morrow has enough knowledge to talk fluently with older printers, and also to teach newcomers about the old art, which is what she does for the community at the Book Arts Collaborative.

Language is more like an ecosystem, according to Mai Kuha is a linguistics professor at Ball State University.

“It’s a living, breathing thing. In that context it’s perfectly reasonable for people to make up new words and things as we go along.” Said Kuha about why language changes.

Jargon in the workplace is created for a few reasons, according to Kuha, both practical and social. The practicality comes with condensing what could be many sentences of meaning down into one word or phrase. All in all, making the work more efficient.

There is a certain prestige involved when someone knows the jargon of a print shop, or any profession. When asked about how it feels to be a new member of this printing world, Morrow replied with a shy grin that exposed a little pride in her humble beginnings.

“I really like it. I guess it’s like, when you come to America, everyone wants you to know English, nobody is willing to adopt the other languages, like Spanish,” said Morrow. “It’s my way of joining the culture of someone else. Like learning their language. I suck at Spanish, this is a language I’ve taken to. It’s a way to connect to these people.”

Kim Miller owns the longest running letterpress print shop in the country, Tribune Show Print, which designs and produces hundreds of posters for concerts, sporting events, festivals, and carnivals out of Muncie, Indiana. Kim and her husband, Rob, bought Tribune in May of 2016 to run alongside their existing screen print business.

Miller estimates Tribune Show Print weighs thousands of pounds with all the furniture, type, ink and other supplies needed to print for her clients. That’s a lot to learn.

According to Keith Houston in his book, “The Book,” a poor man named Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized communication in the 1400s with the invention of moveable type. This invention made printing books much easier, and more accessible to the common person.

“Communications part is the other part of printing that people miss out on. Let’s be real, okay? 500 years ago, a crazy German monk supposedly walked up to a church door and hung a piece of paper to piss off the pope,” said Nils Young, a 71-year-old printer and owner of The Tagalong Press, “[It] caused a whole revolution in religion. That would not have happened without a printing press.”

Young’s father taught him how print, and he carries on his father’s legacy through this art. Once Young’s “lights go out,” he doesn’t want to see his shop donated to a school or museum where he says it will be stored in a back room somewhere. He wants it to be used and the knowledge passed on so it can continue to be used.

“Someone walked along and said, you know, he’s right, I’m going to set that in type and publish it! And the next thing you know, all of Europe is aflame in a religious revolution. All because of a printing press,” he said.

The notorious Hatch Show Print, a print shop in Nashville, Tennessee that dates back to 1875, calls it simply “pressing paper onto wood and metal letters and hand-carved images, with ink in between,” with a rich history and complicated craft.

Printing changed how people spoke. According to Kuha, “people didn’t agonize over a unified language.” Once people started writing things down and printing words for the masses, suddenly they needed a unified way to spell things.

Miller has spent the past year and a half learning how to hand-set type. Though she is fairly fluent in the language of letterpress, every now and then an older printer will say something she’s never heard of.

The terms are still alive in graphic design, and other areas of life, but mass-printing influenced language more than anything.

This past summer was Miller’s “oh wow” moment when she realized she had a handle on this old business, new to her.

“I’m not completely crazy,” she said. “Well, I still am, but not for doing this.”

Other professional jargon, such as medical or law, is still used today because people still need doctors and lawyers. People may not need letterpress printers, but the jargon will live on forever through fields such as journalism or graphic design.

In the words of Young, “so what’s the future is a bit of the past. It may be on the screen in front of you, but it all starts right in here.”

All the time, people use common phrases that were born on the printing press without knowing where they came from. But Gutenberg, and all those printers that died before we may have been born, can rest easy knowing that they’ve made an extraordinary influence on the English language.

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