A lexicographer’s retreat

We can’t see the blue plaque, but thanks to Google Earth we’re able to see the house that lexicographer, missionary, and amateur astronomer Robert Hunter built for himself on Staples Road, Loughton, Essex in 1882. It faces Epping Forest, and the garden looks down the Roding valley.

Epping Forest District Council’s conservation area report includes the following:

‘7 Forest Villa was built (as Forest Retreat) by George Beckett in 1882 to the specifications of Dr Robert Hunter who was a Scottish missionary and lexicographer. Hunter compiled most of his 14 volume Encyclopaedic Dictionary (1879–1897) and his Bible Dictionary (1893) in the house. The former being the biggest before the Oxford English Dictionary was released. Hunter used the house not only as his residence, but as a place of refuge for sick children from the Victoria Docks. He died in the house on 25th February 1897. There is now a blue plaque is visible on the house.

‘The appearance of the house is severe; being a Scottish-style detached house, twin double bayed, the bays splayed, with brick piers and stone dressings. The house is built of Woodford red brick, tuck-pointed, under a steep slate roof. Arranged on the half landing principle to take advantage of the hillside site, the rear rooms are about 5ft lower than those at the front. There is a prominent central belvedere, where Hunter conducted astronomical investigations. The house has tall chimney stacks and original doors, shutters, and windows throughout. The front door has never been pierced for a letterbox, and the mechanical bell pull, still in operation, and all other door furniture are original. The rear elevation is plain, all redbrick, with burglar bars to the original ground-floor sash windows. The original clinker-built timber lean-to laundry room was added in 1970 and is hardly visible from street. There is an ugly but concealed 1950s garage. The interior contains most of the original fittings. The garden covers a quarter of an acre, replanned in 1930s by Reginald Lloyd. There is an Edwardian greenhouse and a lattice fence to front. The street aspect is identical to that at the date of building.’

Why is Hunter important?

The earliest use of bold headwords in a major English dictionary appears to be Robert Hunter’s The Encyclop√¶dic Dictionary (originally pubished by Cassell, later published by Edward Lloyd) which appeared in parts from 1879. Hunter’s page is a remarkable precursor of Murray’s OED layout: bold lower case is used for headwords, senses are divided using a ‘branching’ numbering system, and each sense within the hierarchy begins a new paragraph.

The Encyclopædic Dictionary is generous in its use of space: a hanging indent is used for headwords, numbered sense paragraphs begin with a further indent, and a half-line space separates each entry. The clarity of the innovative all-lower-case bold headwords is compromised by the addition of light en-rules to indicate syllabification and diacritics to indicate pronunciation. The headline shows the first and last new headwords on the page, separated by an em-rule. Bold is used for the major sense-division indicators, and subtle semi-bold numerals are used for numbered senses. Overall the use of metalanguage is systematic and analytical. Italic is used consistently for register, subject field, and grammatical labels (slang, Naut., Transitive). Register and subject-field labels introduce the relevant sense, rather than being part of the wording. Illustrative quotations are set in the conventional broken-off style, but this disrupts the page minimally, as there is already considerable vertical fracturing of each entry.

Hunter’s division of senses, however, has none of the rigour or economy of Murray and certainly lacks the simplicity of Johnson: entries disintegrate into columns of paragraphs numbered with finer and finer grades of senses (‘Each word has been sub-divided as far as possible into the various meanings which it assumes at different times.’ – Preface, p. ii). Phrasal verbs, though displayed in full, are particularly difficult to locate, as italics rather than bold are used for these. It is easy for readers to lose track of the hierarchy of sense-divisions in a long entry.

Extract from my article ‘Clearly defined’ in Typography Papers 4, 2000, p. 56

Is Fagin buried here?

Holy Trinity Church, Clapham, may be the burial-place of the man who gave his name to Charles Dickens’s character in Oliver Twist. Fagin, his name phonetically remembered, was the boy who took the young Dickens under his wing while working at a boot-blacking factory in the early 1820s. This week’s TLS, taking an article by Peter Rowland from Dickensian Digressions, a book scheduled for publication by the Academica Press in the spring, reports an interesting conjecture:

‘But there also appears in those parish records one entry which could well be crucial. The name “Fagin” has been already discounted in our search. If we also discount the name “Fagan”, and cast our net a little wider, we find ourselves confronted by a Robert Fegen who could very well be our man. Again, the actual pronunciation of this name makes it totally indistinguishable to the ear from either Fagin or Fagan.

‘The Robert Fegen in question was born in 1804, which makes him eight years older than Dickens – and we are searching, it must be remembered for someone who was “much bigger and older” than the “young gentleman” who had just started work in the blacking factory. Fegen would, in fact, have been nineteen years old in 1823 but he had not yet formally come to man's estate and it would be pardonable for Dickens, recalling these events twenty-two years later, to think of him as a “boy”, albeit a rather large one.

‘It is not known what career Robert Fegen was following when he married Sarah Elizabeth Love at St Mary’s church, Lambeth, on October 23, 1827. They lived in Bromell’s Road, to the east of Clapham Common. Sadly, their married life lasted little more than five years, for he died on April 29, 1833 at the age of twenty-nine and was buried at Holy Trinity church, Clapham.

‘At this point, pending the discovery of further information, the hunt comes to an end. There seems a very strong likelihood that Bob Fegen is the young man for whom we have been searching, but no way of establishing this beyond an absolute shadow of a doubt.’

David Farkas

David, Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, visited today to talk to MA students about strategies for providing readers with summaries and synopses of extended texts, including QuikScan and SwitchBack.

Pretty ugly

The paper by Diemand-Yauman, Oppenheimer, and Vaughan, ‘Fortune favors the bold (and the italicized)’, made it to the Today programme on Friday, courtesy of Jonah Lehrer of Wired. This paper reports two linked studies investigating the claim that a degree of disfluency in documents (put simply, making them harder to read) leads to improved memory performance.

Its findings have been reduced to ‘ugly fonts help you learn’, ‘typographic history is wrong’, even ‘Kindles are bad for you’, but I’m sure these leaps are not justified by the paper itself. As someone who thinks that good typography consists of good writing that is well articulated, well set, and properly printed (or presented onscreen), I find the concentration on the ‘magic bullet’ effect of a typeface change worrying. Setting your text in Caslon won’t make you write like G. B. Shaw, despite the Shavian insistence that his works be set exclusively in that typeface.

First, let’s look at the typefaces that the investigators considered disfluent: Comic Sans, Comic Sans Italicized, Bodoni MT, Monotype Corsiva, Haettenschweiler (similar to Compacta Bold). The first experiment compared Arial with Comic Sans Italicized and Bodoni MT. It isn’t clear from the paper whether the italic or roman version of Bodoni MT was used – one of the problems is that we are only shown two example stimuli from the first experiment, and none from the second experiment. For an investigation in the effect of visual presentation of text, this is a pretty big omission.

With the exception of Haettenschweiler, all these fonts are near normal in weight and proportion. Comic Sans may be the butt of jokes and typographic snobbery, but its letterforms are clearly within the norms of the western type canon. Monotype Corsiva might appear ‘arty’ to some but again it isn’t really a leftfield font. At first sight Haettenschweiler is – at least it has normal letterforms emboldened and condensed to a very abnormal degree for a text face – but on reflection it’s a fairly conventional font for newspaper headlines. So while a longish text in Word might be really difficult, a short bullet-pointed list, or a straightforward PowerPoint slide might not be so problematic. But there’s a special problem with Haettenschweiler, which we’ll come to.

For experiment 1, we know that simple, comparable texts were set in 16pt Arial, 16pt Comic Sans Italicized (60% greyscale), and 16pt Bodoni MT (60% greyscale). I’ve recreated one of the experiment 1 texts in all the typefaces tested in both experiments (I’ve sloped the Comic Sans by 12 degrees).

Different (from Arial) the variant fonts may be, but I would contend that they are not ‘ugly’. Screen resolution may improve or degrade the effect of tinting the type, but these variants are well within the norms of screen display and print production. (Remember Haettenschweiler and Monotype Corsiva weren’t used in experiment 1.)

Experiment 2 set school learning materials in the ‘disfluent’ typefaces. The process isn’t described very fully, because we get no idea of what the documents (Word and PowerPoint) looked like to begin with, or how much text they contained. We are told that one teacher objected to the use of Haettenschweiler because it was ‘difficult to read’ – Comic Sans Italicized was immediately substituted. We are also told that ‘the font size of the supplementary material was not changed unless the size coupled with the disfluent font made the text illegible as reported by the teachers or the experimenters, in which case the font size was adjusted to allow legibility’ (my italics).

The tables in the paper demonstrate the statistical basis of the claim that the disfluent presentations were more memorable to students. But they don’t break down the results by document type and font. When questioned on their feelings about the material they read, the students reported no discernibly different responses to the materials they were presented with, and that this ‘lack of observed liking/motivational differences between fluency conditions is unlikely to be due to insensitivity measures.’ (This strikes me as very odd, because the work done by Sue Walker demonstrates that schoolchildren can articulate their responses to typographic presentation very clearly.)

So what might we conclude from this paper? Its conclusion is that ‘small interventions have the potential to make big improvements in the performance of our students and education system as a whole.’ What they have found is that changing a document from a typographic default, a norm, makes for an improvement. That somehow doesn’t come as a surprise to me: Arial was designed to look like Helvetica, not to be the ideal typeface for children’s educational materials. Increasing inter-liner spacing often improves a text no end. All the variant fonts, Haettenschweiler excepted, have what conventional typographers might consider either better inter-linear spacing or a more even rhythm of character spacing. Comic Sans (and perhaps even Monotype Corsiva) resemble handwriting. Haettenschweiler looks like the bold, brassy headlines in tabloid newspapers.

What if the findings actually indicate the opposite: that Arial is the ‘ugly’ font, and moving away from a crowded, over-tightly spaced font improves things? Far from working because they are ‘ugly’, these other typefaces might work simply because they are ‘different’.

¶ See also Alison Black’s blog.

Design studentships in Typography

We are looking for exceptional candidates for full-time postgraduate study in the Department of Typography at Reading. The University will award one AHRC-funded studentship for our practice-based MA programmes: Book Design, Information Design or Typeface Design, with entry in October 2011.

We will also be putting candidates forward for doctoral and MA studentships funded by the University of Reading.

Send your completed applications (including two references) to Elaine Harris by Friday 18 February 2011 at Joint Faculty Admissions Office, HUMSS 126D, University of Reading, Whiteknights, Reading RG6 6AA. Ms Harris will also be the first point of contact for any enquiries relating to the competition.

Cutting the circle

Max Gadney selected this as one of his best graphics of 2010. I agree it’s good, but yet again, circles are used to indicate relative size – and we know that we can’t visually make circles add up. The Venn diagram use of circles for non-quantifiable items is fine – see the work of Jessica Hagy. Can anyone rethink this following Isotype principles of graphic units that are easily (visually) manipulated by the reader?

Finger on the page

iPads and other touch-screen devices have reconnected our fingers with reading matter after a period when we found it difficult to interact with vertical displays by touch. And touching what you are reading has a long history – of tracing the line of text when reading with a child, or pointing to the relevant place in the liturgy for the celebrant to read from, or simply trying to keep your place. Mike Esbester’s photograph of timetable readers not only touching, but reconfiguring their entire stance to read a text (short-sightedness? sciatica?) is a charming reminder of our need to get physical with text.

Esbester, M. ‘Nineteenth-century timetables and the history of reading’, Book History, 12 (2009), 156–85