Q: It seems that in Colonial times words that we now spell with an s were instead spelled with an f of fe. I suppose the king’s English was the rule, but when did it change?
Ken Wilborn, of Millstadt
A: If memory serves, one of the first English lessons I was taught in grade school involved the difference in the sounds of the vowels a, e, i, o and u. We were told about the “long” sounds such as brave, we, rite and close along with the “short” sounds such as bat, beg, dim and cot.
Well, if I had lived as late as the 1800s, I could have added another letter to this list — s. For centuries, children were taught that there was a long s that should be used, for example, at the start and middle of words while the short s was used everywhere else.
The difference between the two manifested itself in how the letter was written — and it’s here that I respectfully suggest you look at those old manuscripts more closely. If you do, you’ll find a subtle difference between an f and the symbol denoting a long s. The long s evolved from the Romans’ cursive s. But if you look closely, it does not have the crossbar that you find in the middle of the small f. Instead, it often has just a tiny nub to the left of the middle of the vertical stem — and in italic typefaces it usually has nothing at all in the middle. Meanwhile, the short s looked exactly as a small s does now.
For reasons that leave us scratching our heads today, students had to learn a long list of rules controlling when they should use the long and short versions of the letter even though there was no significant difference in the sound. (NOTE: In the following examples, I am using the letter f to represent a long s because my computer no longer can produce the actual one.) A long s, for example, was used at the beginning and middle of words (fong, ufe, etc.). Printers were taught that it should be used before a hyphen at a line break even though a short s would normally be used. Hence, huf-band instead of husband.
On the other hand, a short s was used at the end of words, before an apostrophe and, yes, before and after the actual letter f. And, here’s perhaps the craziest rule of all: When you have a word with a double s, the first s was often long while the second was short. As a result, you would have written the state and the river as Mifsifsippi. (Some, however, used a double long s except at the end of words. Thus, possess often was written as poffefs.)
Pretty filly ... er ... silly, no? Thank goodness printers came to their fenfes. As new typefaces were developed, the long s was discarded. Some say the turning point came when English publisher John Bell in the 1790s commissioned the William Caslon Co. to produce a more modern typeface. Now, he is credited with the death of the long s. By 1808, “Printer’s Grammar” was praising the change.
“The introduction of the round s, instead of the long, is an improvement in the art of printing equal, if not superior, to any which has taken place in recent years, and for which we are indebted to the ingenious Mr. Bell. (Typefounders now) scarcely ever cast a long s to their fonts ...”
Still, many had a hard time letting the written form die, thinking it made their manufcripts look more formal. For example, Charlotte Brontë’s letters of the mid-1800s often contain the long s as did English poet Edward Lear’s diaries as late as 1884. In fact, vestiges of the old letter form remain. Anyone who has struggled with calculus will know it as the symbol in problems involving integrals.
Just for fun, here are some playful riddles involving the alphabet. See if you can figure them out. What letter is like a gossip? What letter is like a wedding ring? What letter is like death?
Answer to Friday’s trivia: Just before his first child was about to be born in 1937, a struggling 25-year-old entertainer named Danny Thomas reportedly put his last $7 in the offering plate during a Mass in Detroit and prayed to St. Jude for help to support his family. A week later, he landed a job that paid him $70. In thanks, he promised to build a shrine to the saint if he were successful in life. Twenty-five years later, Thomas celebrated the opening of his St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., which has daily operating costs of $2 million but offers free care to its patients. In its 55 years of operation, it also has helped the survival rate of young cancer patients soar from 20 percent to 80 percent. Two days after celebrating the hospital’s 29th anniversary in 1991, Thomas died of heart failure at age 79 and was buried in a mausoleum on the hospital grounds. Nine years later, Rose Marie, his wife of 55 years, was interred by his side. Now, his first child — Marlo — has taken over the cause.