On baroque long S
Jokes about the long medial 's' are easy to make. Stan Freberg's
album Stan Freberg Presents: The United States of America,
Volume I: The Early Years has a scene in which John Adams or
Benjamin Franklin or one of those guys is reading Thomas Jefferson's draft
of the Declaration of Independence: "'Life, liberty, and the purfuit
of happinefs'? Tom, all your s's look like f's!"
A story by Frances
Warfield, appropriately titled "Fpafm", gets probably as much juice
out of the joke as there is to be got. I believe the copyright has
expired, so here it is, in its entirety:
Well, fo much for that.
by Frances Warfield
I ordered ham and eggs, as I always do on the diner, and then, as I
do, looked around for pamphlets. There was one handy, "Echoes of
Days," it was called, "being a little fouvenir iffued from time to
the benefit of the guefts of The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company as
reminder of the pleafant moments fpent..." Involuntarily, my lips
move. I reached for a pencil. But the man across from me already had
pencil out. He had written:
"Oh, fay can you fee?"
I said, "Fing Fomething Fimple."
"Filly, ifn't it?" he said, and kept on writing.
I wrote: "Fing a Fong of Fixpence."
"Oh, ftop the fongs," he said, "Too eafy." He wrote: "The Courtfhip of
Miles Fandifh," "I fee a fquirrel," "I undereftimate ftatefmanfhip,"
fifter feems fuperfenfitive," and, seeing that I did not appreciate
last one, which he evidently thought very fine, he wrote: "Forry to
I ate my lunch grouchily. How could I help it if he was in practice
was not? He had probably taken this train before.
"Pafs the falt," I said.
"Pleafe pafs the falt," he triumphed.
I paid no attention. "Waiter!" I said. The waiter did not budge.
"You muft fpeak the language," said the man opposite me. "Fay,
The waiter jumped to attention. "Fir?" he said.
"Pleafe fill the faltcellar."
"The faltcellar fhall be replenifhed inftantly," replied the waiter,
superior gleam in his eyes.
I smiled and my companion unbent a little. "Let's try for hard ones,"
"Farcafm," he said.
"Fubfiftence," he scored.
"S's inside now," he ruled.
Perfuafive," I said instantly.
"Nonfenfe," I finished. "Fon of a fpeckled fea monfter."
"Ftep-fon of a poifonous fnake!" he cried.
"You don't fay fo!" I retorted.
"I do fay fo," he replied, getting up and leaving the diner.
"Fool!" I called after him, fniffiling.
Reading Baroque scientific papers, you see a lot of
long-medial-s. Opening to a random page of the Philosophical
Experiments and Observations of Robert Hooke, for example, we
The ſecond Experiment, was made, to ſhew a Way, how to
find the true and comparative Expanſion of any metal, when
melted, and ſo to compare it both with the Expanſion of the
ſame metal, when ſolid, and likewiſe with the
Expanſion of any other, either fluid or ſolid Body.
As I read more of this sort of thing, I went through several phases.
At first it I just found it confusing. Then later I started to get
good at reading the words with f's instead of s's and it became funny.
("Fhew! Folid! Hee hee!") Then it stopped being funny, although I
still noticed it and found it quaint and charming. Also a constant
reminder of how learned and scholarly I am, to be reading this old
stuff. (Yes, I really do think this way. Pathetic, isn't it? And
you are an enabler of this pathetic behavior.) Then
eventually I didn't notice it any more, except in a few startling
cases, such as when Dr. Hooke wrote on the tendency of ice to
incorporate air bubbles while freezing, and said "...at the ſame
time it may not be ſaid to ſuck it in".
What hasn't happened, however: it hasn't become
completely transparent. The long s really does look a lot like an f,
so much so that I can find it confusing when the context doesn't help
me out. The fact that these books are always facsimiles
and that the originals were printed on coarse paper and the ink has
smudged, does not make it any easier to tell when one is looking at an
s and when at an f. So far, the most difficult instance I have
encountered involved a reference to "the Learned
Or was it Voffius?
Or was it Voſfius?
found out later it was indeed Vossius; this is Dr. Gerhard Johann Voss
(1577-1649), Latinized to "Vossius". But I was only able to be sure
because I encountered the name somewhere else with the short s's.
This typographic detail raises a question of scholarly ethics that I
don't know how to answer. In an earlier article, I needed
to show how 17th-century writers referred to dates early in the year,
which in common nomenclature occurred during one year, but which
legally were part of the preceding year. Simply quoting one of these
writers wasn't enough, because the date was disambiguated
typographically, with the digit for the legal year directly above the
digit for the conventional year. So I programmed TeX to demonstrate
But this raised another problem: to what degree should I reproduce
the original typography? There is a scale here of which
substitutions are more or less permissible:
It seems to me that replacing the long medial s's with short ones is
toward the top of this scale. By doing this, I am not changing the
spelling, because a long medial s is still an s; I am just replacing
one s with another, and this is akin to changing the font. And
anyway, my choice was forced, because stock TeX does not have any way
to make a long medial s.
- Most permissible is to replace the original 17th-century font with
a modern one.
- Slightly less permissible would be to reduce the heavy
17th-century usage of italic face, in Royal Society for
example, replacing it with roman typefaces.
- Slightly less permissible still would be to replace the
17th-century capitalization conventions with 20th-century conventions.
For example, in C20 we would not capitalize "Remark".
- Then can I replace obsolete 17th-century contractions such as
"consider'd" with 20th-century equivalents such as "considered"? If
that is acceptable, then what about "'tis"? Can I replace "3dly"
- Can I replace obsolete Baroque spellings such as "plaister",
"fatt", and "it self" with "plaster", "fat", and "itself"?
- Can I replace obsolete Baroquisms such as "strow'd" in "strow'd on
Ice" with "strewn", or "stopple" with "stopper"?
- At the bottom of the list, I could just rewrite the whole thing in
a modern style and pass it off as what Derham actually wrote.
[ Addendum 20060405 ]
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