Josna Rege

318. Out of Sorts

In blogs and blogging, Books, Stories, Words & phrases, Work on April 18, 2015 at 10:36 pm

atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910


There are those days when you are not yourself but can’t quite put a finger on the reason why. You will be irritable, a little dejected, and, although there doesn’t seem to be anything definitively wrong with you, not quite up to par. But woe betide an innocent friend if s/he asks what’s wrong: you’re liable to bite her head off. This is the condition known as being out of sorts.

For letterpress printers and compositors, though, the condition can be diagnosed much more decisively, although it isn’t any more readily cured. The individual pieces of type in a type case are known as sorts, so-called because when a job has been printed it has to be distributed, a painstaking and time-consuming process of sorting all the individual letters and spaces back into the right compartments in the type cases where they belong. When you begin typesetting a particular job, it is advisable for you to take a quick inventory of the various typefaces and sizes you are going to need, to make sure that you will have enough to set the whole thing. If you run out of even a single letter partway through the process, you may have to distribute everything you have set so far and start all over again with a typeface of which you do have enough. Reaching into a compartment only to discover that there are no more of a certain letter—a deeply frustrating find—is known in the trade as being out of sorts. And indeed, the prospect of the time and the tedium that starting over entails is enough to put even the most phlegmatic of compositors out of sorts.



It is generally believed, though it cannot be proven, that the figurative “out of sorts” is derived from the printing trade. Since, in my opinion, the other theories—one, that it has its origin in the British class system (he’s not our sort, don’t you know) and the other, in card playing (an unshuffled pack was said to be out of sort) aren’t very convincing, I’m sticking with the theory of the frustrated compositor.

And now for a typeface guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of the most peevish printer:


Designed by German typeface designer Hermann Zapf and commercially released in 1958, Optima is a sans-serif designed to please both the classically-minded and the moderns. It is based on the classic Roman model on the one hand, yet also has a subtle flare at the terminals suggesting a glyphic serif.




Just the ticket if you’re feeling out of sorts. Make sure, though, that you have a full case!


Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910

  1. I agree that the origin of the phrase is most likely to have been in the type-setting business, though I hadn’t known before this.
    Another interesting post and another phrase of which source was new to me.

  2. Having to sort out all that type would be enough to drive a person mad even without lead poisoning!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: