Monday, July 09, 2007

News flash: widows are older than orphans

I got into an interesting discussion the other day about a nicety of composition. Publishers get to make choices when they are buying typesetting. The more criteria they specify, the more labor is required and the higher the price (no secret there). One of the criteria publishers often include in their specifications is “no widows or orphans.”

This raises a couple of questions, and in the course of the discussion, we resolved one of them. The original meaning of widow (in the typesetting context) is the last line of a paragraph carried over to the top of a page. An orphan is the opposite—the first line of a paragraph stranded at the bottom of the page. This is the general consensus among old-time compositors.

However, the Gregg Reference Manual, which has been the standard secretarial handbook for decades, got the definitions reversed. This led to Microsoft getting the definitions backwards in Microsoft Word. As a result, a lot more people have the definitions wrong way round than have them in the traditional order. (The latest edition of Gregg, locking the barn door after the horse is gone, has reversed course and made the correction.)

But the more interesting question that arose is this: When did the term orphan first enter typesetting argot? A few of us have been looking, and so far, we’ve found widow defined in references from before 1980, but we’ve found no references to orphan that old. In theory, those of us involved in this discussion are old enough to remember when we first heard the term, but we’re also old enough to imagine we heard it many years earlier than we actually heard it.

Further, looking at examples of fine printing from before 1970, pages may be devoid of widows but there seems to have been no effort to eliminate orphans, suggesting that nobody gave the notion much thought before the advent of computerized page makeup.

So here’s your challenge: If you can find a printed definition of or reference to orphans in a typographic context from before 1990, respond in the comments with the citation. There are at least three people who are wasting time on this question, and we’d all like to be doing something more productive. Earliest citation wins a lifetime half-price subscription to this blog. (That’s lifetime of the blog, just to be clear.)


Anonymous said...

My "evidence" is anecdotal. I seem to remember that I first heard the expressions in early 1978, when I took my first real job. I was hired as a proofreader/copy editor at a small tax publisher in Nassau County, on Long Island in New York.

Dave said...

From: Glen Allvord
Posted to:
To: "CTP-Q, Page Layout: Adobe, Quark, MS, PDF" 2007 July 12

Graphic Arts Encyclopedia, second edition 1978, George
A. Stevenson, McGraw-Hill, Inc., page 260.

"orphan: In copy layout and page makeup, a colloquial
term for a word or syllable that stands alone at the
top of a column or page. An orphan is an indication of
poor layout and should be avoided. See also widow."

NEID Printing
Groton, CT 06340

Dick Margulis said...

Okay, folks, see how citation works? Good job, Glen!

Now, can anyone else push it back further?

Dick Margulis said...

Late news, courtesy of a fellow going by the handle "Character" over on alt.binaries.fonts:

A 1904 citation for "widdies" and a 1932 citation for "widows" in typography manuals.

Nothing before 1978 on orphans yet.

Dick Margulis said...

Further update:

Wm Voss, a printer in California who still sets foundry type in a composing stick, bless him, went digging in his library and reported the following:

"Both practices are described and condemned in Van Winkle (1818), Savage (1841), and MacKellar (1885), but none use the terms."

He subsequently reported:

"A Widow is also described in [a 1958 annotated reprint of] Moxon, but not by term. The editors do note the term in use among English printers; the Dutch called it a Whore's Son."

I would add that the Dutch usage may be what gave rise to the confusion between widows and orphans in Gregg, et seq.

In a third post, Wm reported, "A Composition Manual (PIA, 1953) doesn't even mention either topic, though given the typographic standards of the era, perhaps that's no small surprise."

Anonymous said...

The first time I encountered the term "orphan" was in the typographical controls of Quark XPress v2. That made me a bit crestfallen because I thought I had learned everything by then. And a coworker who claimed to have been a typographer at Foote Cone & Belding made my crest fall even more by carrying on as if orphan-control were SOP at the ad agencies.

But "orphan" was not the only neologism I discovered while learning QXP's controls -- there was also "tracking", and that, I was certain, ought to have been called "letterspacing".

Your question sent me to Words into Type, third edition (Marjorie Skillin and Robert Gay, Prentice-Hall, 1974). There is still no better manual for book preparation. They give three entries for the widow and nowhere do they describe the orphan.

Until Glen of NEID Printing gave us the 1978 reference I had assumed orphans were a Quark thang. Maybe it's an agency thang after all. It does take a special sort of person to advocate the killing of all widows and orphans.

If I had the time, I'd be tempted to look for the term in the historical editions of the U.S. GPO's Manual of Style.

Robert Biddle
Tijuana, Baja California

Dick Margulis said...

My 1959 GPO manual makes no mention of either--by name or by concept--that I can find.

Dick Margulis said...

Yet another update from Wm Voss:

"I dug out my copies of Polk's The Practice of Printing. Both are described in the 1926 first, but the names not used. The same description is carried through to the 1962 edition, which has a footnote stating that the term "widow" is now used, but 'orphan' is not mentioned."

Dick Margulis said...

Mike Mellody dug up a 1947 cite for both widow and orphan on page 383 of This Fascinating Advertising Business, by Harry Lewis Bird. See (the link is to the book page on Live Search).

Mike also recalls a book from the 1920s, but he hasn't found the book yet. Stay tuned.

Anne-Marie said...

Sidebar: What About Runt? ;-)

My co-host at the blog/podcast, David Blatner, coined the term "runt" back in 1991 (when he was writing books on QuarkXPress) to describe a very short word or part of a word appearing as the last line of a paragraph.

Have you/anyone ever heard or used the term "runt" in his way? (I've heard it often over the years from colleagues, clients and students; but it might be confined to QuarkXPress and InDesign users.)

In a recentish blog post about everyone's preferred Hyphenation and Justification settings (yes we are a geeky blog), David explained the precise definition of a runt in his comment here (note I'm breaking up the URL to fit the space, you'll have to remove the returns):

I did an Internet search for "runt" and found only one instance where it was referred to in the same manner; in an old tutorial from a college's graphic design program called "Widows, Orphans and Runts:"

Dick Margulis said...
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Dick Margulis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dick Margulis said...

Third attempt:


I can't say I've ever heard runt used that way before, but I kinda like it. (Note that I've been dealing with type since the late 1950s, but I'm always happy to learn more.)

As for wrapping the URL, it's actually okay to put the whole thing on one line in a comment. It looks a little messy, but it clicks okay. And if you don't like that approach, you can use to generate something that's guaranteed to fit.

However, for the benefit of anyone who runs into broken URLs, especially in email, I devised an easy way to deal with them. Copy the whole thing, with the line breaks, and paste it into a text editor (I use Notepad on my Windows machine). Remove the line breaks in the text editor; then copy the whole thing and paste it into the browser address bar in one swell foop.

Anyway, here's your URL on one line. In theory this will work (he wrote hopefully):

[later] Actually, that didn't work. Let me try it as a link.