Archive for the ‘Language’ Category


I think I’ve made it pretty clear on this blog that I love books.  I also love lots of things related to words, language, and typography. So today, I’m posting about letters. I’m sure many of you have noticed the widespread use of stand-alone letters. I don’t mean monogramming on sweaters, linens, or coffee cups, I mean the giant letter above a bed, or a name or other word spelled out using letters in different colors and styles. Just flip through a Pottery Barn catalog and you’ll probably find a few examples of letters used in decorating homes, especially kids’ rooms.



Or step into an Anthropologie store, where there are fabric letters, zinc letters, massive oversize letters, letters on coat hooks, letters on pedestals…the list goes on and on.

abczincI think these letters are kinda fun, but also rather generic. What I really love is the idea of using vintage letters and mixing and matching colors and materials to make a more visually interesting word. If you’re thinking of incorporating some vintage letters into your next design project, there’s a fantastic San Francisco store that’s one of the best places in the country to find vintage letters of all sizes, colors, and materials. The spot? Timeless Treasures, at 2176 Sutter Street. For the last decade, owner Joan O’Conner has been been hunting around estate sales, flea markets, and auctions (especially in France and New England) and the result is a cozy nest of vintage home furnishings.




For those that aren’t in San Francisco, Joan is great about helping long-distance customers. If you tell her the words you want to spell and any ideas you have about the colors, sizes, materials, or origins of letters (and punctuation too), she’ll put together some sample combinations, photograph them, and email them to you. Pretty awesome. Check out her Timeless Treasures blog here, where there are lots of examples of how people have used her letters in their own homes, businesses, and photographs  Just a few to whet your appetite…

joker(Timeless Treasures letters in an art work by Jeff Lipkin)


(Timeless Treasures letters in a home in Spokane)


(Timeless Treasures letters in a shot by photographer Kelly Smith)

west-elm1(Timeless Treasures letters in a West Elm catalog)


(Timeless Treasures letters in a garden in Menlo Park, CA)

bar-jules(Timeless Treasures letters at Bar Jules in San Francisco)

On a related note, I’ve just added Laurent Pflughaupt’s Letter by Letter to my ever-growing to-read stack.


I found it on the Chronicle Books website. This description won me over:

“In Letter by Letter graphic designer and calligrapher Laurent Pflughaupt analyzes each letter of the Roman alphabet in detail, tracing its origin, evolution, and form, as well as discussing its important abbreviations, symbols, and associated meanings. Arranged in alphabetical order, twenty-six entries offer a wealth of facts about each letter, establishing correspondences between letters and elements borrowed from a variety of different fields of study, ranging from traditional paleography, phonetics, and graphic arts to the more arcane areas of musicology, esotericism, and even Eastern philosophy. In addition to a glossary, timelines and images allow us to visualize the letters during the different historical eras, giving the reader an appreciation of their successive metamorphoses. Written as an homage, this lovingly illustrated book takes a broad approach to the modern alphabet, allowing the reader to see letters anew, in a fresh and lively manner guaranteed to inform and enchant anyone interested in typography and language.”


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In honor of the Hallmark holiday, I’ve decided to recommend one of my favorite reads about love: A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, by Roland Barthes, translated from French into English by Richard Howard. As the title suggests, the topic is the language used by one in love.

Description on Amazon:

“Barthes’s most popular and unusual performance as a writer is A Lover’s Discourse, a writing out of the discourse of love. This language—primarily the complaints and reflections of the lover when alone, not exchanges of a lover with his or her partner—is unfashionable. Thought it is spoken by millions of people, diffused in our popular romances and television programs as well as in serious literature, there is no institution that explores, maintains, modifies, judges, repeats, and otherwise assumes responsibility for this discourse . . . Writing out the figures of a neglected discourse, Barthes surprises us in A Lover’s Discourse by making love, in its most absurd and sentimental forms, an object of interest.”—Jonathan Culler

I definitely would not say it is an easy read, but it is a fascinating one, one that will having you thinking time and again “Yes! That’s how it is — just like that,” feeling both the thrill of being understood and the disappointment of finding oneself unoriginal precisely in the way we feel most unique and special — how we are in love.

Barthes just nails it so well — here are a few examples from the fragments:

“As a jealous man, I suffer four times over: because I am jealous, because I blame myself for being so, because I fear that my jealousy will wound the other, because I allow myself to be subject to a banality: I suffer from being excluded, from being aggressive, from being crazy, and from being common.”

“‘Am I in love? –Yes, since I’m waiting.’ The other never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game: whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.

“Despite the difficulties of my story, despite discomforts, doubts, despairs, despite impulses to be done with it, I unceasingly affirm love, within myself, as a value. Though I listen to all the arguments which the most divergent systems employ to demystify, to limit, to erase, in short to depreciate love, I persist: “I know, I know, but all the same…” I refer the devaluations of a lover to a kind of obscurantist ethic, to a let’s-pretend realism, against which I erect the realism of value: I counter whatever “doesn’t work” in love with the affirmation of what is worthwhile.”

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Don’t you love when the first sentence really strikes you? You just know you’re going to love the book. Or, if not the book, at least the way the author writes. Some of my favorite first sentences are below…what’s yours?

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy


“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”  The Satanic Verses, by Salmon Rushdie


“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” The Stranger, by Albert Camus


“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen


“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”  Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier


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calendarThis year for Christmas I got a  “Forgotten English” day calendar by Jeffrey Kacirk, which is filled with antiquated English words and phrases. Being such a dork about words and language, I’m obviously lovin’ it.

Five of my favorites:

Pure Quill: A strange synonym for “the real thing,” the very essence of an argument. Also applied to any subject thought worthy of superlative praise. – John Farmer’s Americanisms Old and New, 1889.

Holy-cruel: Cruel by being too virtuous. – John Phin’s  Shakespeare Cyclopaedia and New Glossary, 1902

Flire: To laugh, or rather to have a countenance expressive of laughter, without laughing out. From Icelandic flyra. — John Brockett’s Glossary of North Country Words, 1825

Culch: Great quantity of rain. – Jabez Good’s Glossary of East Lincolnshire, 1900

Unkard: A person in a strange place with which he is unacquainted is said to be unkard. The word, when applied to a place, means lonely. -F.T. Dinsdale’s Glossary of Provincial Words Used in Teesdale in the County of Durham, 1849

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