Gimme that Olde Tyme Engli∫h

Ah, that old chestnut, Paradife Loft.  Sounds like fun, huh?

Admit it.  You know someone who still sews outfits for their concrete geese to wear, loves “kute ‘n kuddly kountry krafts,” and has a difficult time saying no to LOL cats.  And one of those “krafts” are old “tyme” tavern signs, wooden signs with charming period writing.


I know someone who has a tavern sign hanging up in their rumpus rooms (aka Man Cave for y’all that watch way too much HGTV) that reads “Thee Hou∫e of Ye Smythe“.   And “Smythe” (who is really a “Smith”) insisted that the “Hou∫e” was to be pronounced as “Houfe.”

Being one who loves needling the pretentious, I asked Smith “Prithy thee Squire, why does thee sayeth it like way on yon sign?”

“Because,” said Smith, “that’s the way people spoke back then.  And quit mocking my heritage.”

While we in the modern world have the “S” and the “s” in all of its glory, languages at one time, there was also a use for the “Long S” or the “∫”.

And if you are doing colonial era research, and trying to decode documents and early published works between 1600 and 1800, you are going to remind yourself that these “∫” are out there and how there were used.

The Long S, henceforth ∫, was used at one time where at the beginning and middle of a lower case word (∫inful, hou∫e, ∫taff and present) but never at the end of a word, in the singular or the plural.

See the problem that you could be getting into?

The ∫ is something that is a by product of the Roman’s, fell out of use by the 1300’s only to be revived by Italian poets in the 15th century.  Under their use rules, the ∫ could never be used at the end of the word, and they preferred it not used at the beginning of the word, but fair to midland, the middle was OK.

By the 1790’s the printing industry was getting tired of all those S, s, ∫, issues so as new font blocks were established, the designers said “to Hell with this ‘∫’ business” and that regulated it to those who wrote by hand.  There was even a battle between the printers guilds and classical writer’s over including the ∫ in their works, for authentic writing,  but the printers won out.

By the mid 1800’s the ∫ was strictly for the romantics, letter writers, disciples of Old Mother Shipton and other luddite’s who refused to give up on it.

The final blow to the ∫ came with the invention of the typewriter.  You can’t type unless there is a key for it and neither the inventor of the QWERTY keyboard or Dvorak weren’t allowing anymore spaces into their layouts.

Where the ∫ did find a home was in the early antiques industry of New England.  When American’s were beginning to get weary of Queen Ann Victorianism, with its riots of shingles, bead boards, wainscoting’s, architects like McKim Mead & White helped to bring the Beaux Arts styles to North America, and in the process they helped to revive “Colonial” style architecture (which was mixing of Georgian, Federal and Greek Revival styles) into – can you guess?  “Colonial American” style.

With that came the dawn of the American Antiques industry, when an antiques was really an antique, and not junk from a resale store.  And this embrace of Windsor chairs, and spinning wheels, and brass bed warmers also led to the resurrection of the ∫ on signs, faux Revolutionary War signs and artwork and such.

Luckily, that is as far as it got, hence, how we ended up with the whole “hou∫e by the ∫ide of the road” kitschiness that confused people like my friend Smith into thinking that the “s” is a relatively new letter, and that a lispy f came before s.

Besides its anachronistic use, the other place that you will find our old friend is in higher levels of math where it can be found haunting calculus equations.

But it still makes me feel a bit puzzled as to how quickly you can slap some “quaintness” onto something and have reasonably educated people fall completely into that hole of bedazzling ignorance when it comes to this faux olde tyme stuff.

True story, in Ohio, the state capital is Columbus. Just north of The Ohio State University, but immediately south of Clintonville, along High Street (the north/south thoroughfare that is the backbone of Columbus) lies what is left of the village of North Columbus.  When North Columbus was founded, the city of Columbus was still several miles south.  By the 1890s, Columbus had grown and now included Ohio State’s land. Eventually, Columbus grew to the point where it swallowed “North Columbus” and “North Columbus” ceased to be its own legal entity, but a neighborhood.

In the mid 2000’s, the city decided to place two arches, spanning North High Street, where the original North Columbus started (North of Lane Avenue) and one south of Arcadia Avenue. The graphic at the top was to read “Olde North Columbus” to recognize the quaint village that had once been there, not the city that was currently there.  When the signs were erected, the spans read “Old North Columbus”, without the anachronistic “e”.  Someone made a mistake.  After some scratched heads, some official of the commission overseeing the project remarked to the effect that yes, the fix will need to be made because “that e used to on the word olde…That’s how they spelled it back then.”

A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Don’t be that guy.