Just Your Type

Type, design, writing and other funny stuff

Is roman type really Roman?

Aldus Minutius
Renaissance type designer Aldus Minutius

You know what an italic font is. Bold type is simple enough to understand. Bold italic? Easy-peasy. But what if a font isn’t any of those? If it’s just straight-up normal, like the text you’re reading right now?

We call that roman. (Normally I’d put a new term in italics, but that’d be a little confusing here, eh?) The type you’re reading right now is roman.

Bring on the machines

Before Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type, fonts were all over the place. Sometimes a lowercase e had a bar through it, sometimes it looked a whole lot like the letter c. Everything was done by hand, individually, by artists. And you know how artists can be.

The printing press had limited fonts available, and from that necessity was born the invention of type designers. There were a handful of great ones during the Italian Renaissance, like Aldus, pictured above. They went a long way to standardize how type should look, so we mere mortals could all learn to read easier. Since they invented it, they got to name it. And they were all Romans.

They defined three general font categories: roman, italic, and blackletter. Blackletter is the proper name of what we often call Old World or Old English, the big swirly medieval-looking calligraphic style, like this:

Before you start yelling at me, we don’t capitalize roman when referring to letters. That’s so we don’t confuse roman letters with paper letters written by Romans.

Renaissance: the rebirth

Why didn’t they call the non-italic non-bold non-blackletter font regular, or normal, or standard? Who knows — except it helps to remember that during the Renaissance nothing was regular or normal or standard. Everything was new. This was the era of Michelangelo and da Vinci and Machiavelli and Galileo and Columbus, all upending the world order. Besides, Times New Roman probably sounded a lot cooler than Times New Normal.

Originally, blackletter, roman, and italic were never used together. It took another hundred years before it occurred to anyone to mix and match. Not long after that, those crazy nuts came up with bold italic, probably while drunk.

And in confusion

In web design, italics are summoned by the name emphasis, and bold is called strong. That’s what what you get when you let computer geeks name things. What are you supposed to say? “Make it strong, but without emphasis.” Get outta here with that.

Oblique font styles are like italics, but they’re not. Done right, italic is a uniquely designed font that complements its roman sibling. It’s quite different — very scripty — yet belongs in the same font family. Oblique fonts are just roman fonts skewed over. They’re the font equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa: same, just crooked.

From the top: Garamond roman, oblique and italic.

You can see how much more elegant a real italic is. Faux italic was invented by Web designers to help you get italic whether it existed in the original font family or not. If it was there, great. If not, they bent over the roman letters. So — computer geeks again. Sheesh.

Previously on Just Your Type:

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Should punctuation be included in italics?

  This problem came up in a book I was working on recently. The author italicized a lot of words, but didn't include any of his punctuation in the italicization. Put another way, his words were italic, but his punctuation was Roman. It left a lot of visual...

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Who's this guy?

"Mick" is Michael Campbell, a book designer, graphic artist and writer. His humor column, The Dumpster, closes every issue of Food & Spirits Magazine. Author of Are You Going To Eat That?, and the new 2017 book of seventy hilarious all new essays, Of Mice and Me.
A singer songwriter too. New CD My Turn Now is available now!