Thursday, October 15, 2009

Okay, Enough with the Fs Already!

Anyone whose has had a glance at an 18th century newspaper, poster, or even book (or just about anything in Historic Williamsburg) may have noticed something a bit off. One of the most common letters in the alphabet is replaced by a different one. That is, just about every s is gone and replaced with an f. Now why would they go and do that?

The truth is those fs aren't actually fs at all! They are what was known as Long Ss. It's similar to what an italicized form of an s looks like. Orginally the grammatical rule deemed that the long s would be the s used in the middle of a word while the "normal" one would be used at the end, so mistress would come out like miftrefs. Of course since this was a silly rule to begin with, it was only followed loosely. Of course even though those fs are really a stretched out s, I'd be curious if you could truly explain the aesthetic difference to me, because the font definitely looks the same!


  1. Uh, I would've been happy enough if this had been the most usual custom in Sweden at the time, but oh no!

    Sure, you get used to it after a while but when it's smudgy and badly printed it's headache almost every time.

  2. I'm in the middle of reading `the other bolyen girl` by Philipa Gregory, and just on the inside of the front and back cover is a printed letter from Ann Bolyen. I did wonder why their `s's` looked strange. It makes for a very confusing read but now this answers why.

    Thank you

  3. Aesthetically, the f and long s look pretty similar in many fonts. You should find however that there is either no cross-stroke, or that it is only on the left side (as if you began to cross the f, but stopped halfway). You can see this in the image I made a while back of some words with f's and s's in.

    Note that the long-s is a lower-case character only. A capital S will look like a modern one, even if it's not at the end of a word. (E.g. Spanifh, not Fpanifh!)

    See also: Wikipedia article.

  4. Isn't it related to the German letter s-set? ß

    That's what I always assumed after 2 years of German at my Lutheran k-8 school.

  5. @ Aileen
    Yes you are correct! its a remnent of the 'fraktur' script which also used the long S.
    The unlaut is also a rement from the fraktur script; lower case Es were writted more like an N and often this was put above the letter rather than next to it, this is why either ue/ae or ü ä is correct.