The Serif: An attempt at deciphering its etymology

Hello everyone,

Even if "serif" remains the most popular and widely used term thought the world, there are still languages that use other words to refer to these shapes, sometimes the most neglected given their relatively small frame at text sizes.

Besides the obvious "serif", I would add "grazie", which is how they are called in Italy. Maybe the name alludes to the fact that they enliven and give beauty and grace to the text.

Spanish has also "serifa", but what I really find interesting is that the word for orthographical accent in Spanish is "tilde". Adjective "atildado" has a general sense of neatness, order, something that is spruced up or groomed. Again, we find ourselves in a scenario where serifs seem to bring some kind of adornment or beauty to the text.

And yet some more examples: 

Albanian: dhëmbëza (apparently, teeth or scar are two possible translations)

I would like to know if the members of the community would be so kind so as to support this thread and share their ideas on the word and its near absolute ubiquity.

Thanks for your kindness and help.


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Comments

  • The Wiktionary entry might be helpful: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/serif
  • Christian ThalmannChristian Thalmann Posts: 1,781
    edited April 14
    My own folk etymology ist that it comes from German scharf «sharp» or perhaps Schärfe «sharpness».
    Though seeing the spelling «ceriph» in the Wikipedia article, I'm wondering whether «seraph» could have something to do with it. Perhaps the serifs look like little wings?
  • Nick CurtisNick Curtis Posts: 118
    From Etrymology Online…
    English serif (1841), earlier ceref (1827). This is perhaps from Dutch and Flemish schreef "a line, a stroke," a noun related to schrijven "to write," a Germanic borrowing from Latin scribere "to write" (from PIE root *skribh- "to cut"). OED finds the Dutch and Flemish word fairly suits the sense and form; but historical evidence is wanting…

  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,279
    I knew from Thibaudeau's La Lettre d'Imprimerie that the French term is "empattement," but this thread inspired me to look into that French word and I was delighted to learn that besides "serif" it also refers to "projecting masonry at the base of a wall."
  • My own folk etymology ist that it comes from German scharf «sharp» or perhaps Schärfe «sharpness».
    Though seeing the spelling «ceriph» in the Wikipedia article, I'm wondering whether «seraph» could have something to do with it. Perhaps the serifs look like little wings?
    I can't help but noticing that typeface is usually translated as "police d'écriture" in French. My mind immediately makes an association between "serif" (or should it actually be sheriff?) and the French "police", as in an English "police officer".
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,478
    The words "type" and "font" have other meanings in English as well. French isn't an outlier with "police", just different than English. FWIW, "sheriff" is related to the word "shire" ("a representative of royal authority of a shire").
  • The words "type" and "font" have other meanings in English as well. French isn't an outlier with "police", just different than English. FWIW, "sheriff" is related to the word "shire" ("a representative of royal authority of a shire").
    I've sometimes wondered if this use of the word "police" may have something to do with the vigilance or control one had to have with sorts when setting type before the advent of easier-to-use, smoother techniques.

    And indeed, Italian words "polizia" and "pulizia" (this last one filled with connotations of cleanliness, neatness and orderliness) seem to have a lot in common with the demanding and controlling task of setting type to a high standard.
  • K PeaseK Pease Posts: 167
    We see this in the English word "policy". Probably, this term "police d'écriture" refers not to the rigors of typesetting work but to the fact that type is inherently more fixed and conformant than handwriting. A typeface is a very particular set of rules for how text is to look.

  • Peter BakerPeter Baker Posts: 130
    I'm going to offer my own off-the-wall etymology of serif (based on an entire half hour of research), but first I'll state my extreme dissatisfaction with the etymology most commonly offered (including in the Oxford etymological dictionaries by Onions and Hoad), namely Dutch Schreef "line, stroke." The reason I don't like that is that Dutch words beginning with sch otherwise come to English with sk or sh. As English has plenty of skr- and shr- words (script, shrift), why the phonological distortion? Perhaps you could get to English serif by routing the Dutch word through some other language, maybe French (sérif), but comme c'est compliqué!

    The variety of early 19th-c. spellings (surryph, ceriph, seriff, etc.) suggests to me that people were more accustomed to hearing the word than seeing it spelled out. Still, I'm struck by the early spellings ceriph, ceref, which put me in mind of Latin cera, "wax, wax tablet," cerifico "to make wax," and (medieval) cerificus "waxen."

    It doesn't seem to be always the case with wax tablets, but it seems common enough that they were ruled, as manuscripts were commonly ruled, but the rules being made with the same stylus used for writing, they were much more prominent than in manuscripts (which were lightly ruled in pencil):


    An article by Michelle P. Brown, "The Role of the Wax Tablet in Medieval Literacy," The British Library Journal 29 (1994), 1-16, describes a set of late 14th-c. wax tablets in which the text is written on ruled lines. Of course, wax tablets continued in use right up until the 19th c. (though I admit I don't know enough about it to say whether they continued to be ruled). Could the early serif (in whatever language) be an echo of the rulings on wax tablets?

    So my etymology: serif, a noun derived from medieval Latin cerificus "waxen," originally "a stroke made after the fashion of writing on a wax tablet."

    Off the wall, as I said, but there it is.

  • Rob BarbaRob Barba Posts: 74
    I'm going to deliberately start some folk etymology and say that it's based on serf, because it does the lion's share of the work for non-sans fonts (don't worry, that doesn't have to make sense; it's folk etymology!)
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