A typeface is a distinctive type design.
Just as companies like Chevrolet and Chanel were named after their founders, typefaces are often named after their designers, such as Goudy, Caslon or Lubalin.
Sometimes a typeface is named to honor a person important in type design (Garamond), a place (Memphis) or an event (Renaissance). The Inland Type Foundry named typefaces such as Studley to honor important customers. Robert P. Studley was a printer in St. Louis.
[above] Some names imply a mood or genre. “Harlow” implies glamour. “Asylum,” “Trashco” and “You Murderer” do not. Typefaces named “Goofball” or “Carnival” are probably not suitable for the annual report of an insurance company.
[above] Some “Grotesk” and “Grotesque” faces are not grotesque at all. Wikipedia says that grotesque "was originally coined by William Thorowgood of Fann Street Foundry, the first person to produce a sans-serif type with lower case, in 1832. The name came from the Italian word 'grottesco', meaning 'belonging to the cave'. In Germany, the name became Grotesk. German typefounders adopted the term from the nomenclature of Fann Street Foundry, which took on the meaning of cave (or grotto) art. Nevertheless, some explained the term was derived from the surprising response from the typographers."
What can you learn about a typeface from its name? Maybe a lot. Maybe a little. Maybe nothing.
[above] Typefaces with similar or identical names may not look similar.
Several typeface names seem humorous—even if they were not intended to be so— like “Zapf Dingbats,” “Friz Quadrata,” “Bodoni Bold” and “Harry Heavy.”
[above] “Roman” may mean a typeface with serifs. “Times New Roman” (“TNR”) is a “new” roman typeface designed for the Times newspaper in London and first used in 1932.
“Roman” may also be used to mean type that is vertical, as opposed to slanted “oblique” or “italic” fonts. You can use Times New Roman roman or Times New Roman italic. The “Roman” in “Times New Roman” is part of a proper noun and is uppercased, but when “roman” is used as a description for a kind of typeface, it is lowercased.
[above] “Gothic” may mean an ornate typeface like Waters Gothic. “Gothic” may also mean a simple, sans serif face like Century Gothic.
By one standard, both of these Gothic typefaces are also roman. By the other standard, only Waters is roman. They both could be considered grotesque -- or just one could.
[above] Some typefaces with different names look very similar. Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland. “Helvetica” comes from “Helvetii,” a tribe occupying part of current Switzerland over 2,000 years ago.
[above] The “Alpine” typeface looks nothing like the other “Swiss” faces. (The Alps are also in Germany.)
Some typeface names seem to be deliberately deceptive. “Helvetic” is likely named to make people think they are getting “Helvetica.” You can download Helvetic for free while seeing advertising and possibly infecting your computer with a virus. Genuine Helvetica (from Linotype) costs $29 for one variation or $693 for the complete set.
[below] There are even websites offering free (i.e., illegal) downloads of genuine Helvetica and other faces.
This blog post is adapted from my upcoming e-book, Typography for Independent Publishers.