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My boss stated that he noticed the word "weight" is used to refer to the boldness of a character, and stated that he felt this was a new occurrence.

My gut feeling is that this is an old term, derived from the typesetting industry and made popular with the advent of personal computers, desktop and web publishing. I also suspect that the term had something to do with the physical weight of typeset letters, but this is just a supposition.

While Google's n-gram viewer shows a massive increase in "font weight" usage starting around 1985 (which corresponds to the usage spike of the term "desktop publishing"), there were smaller spikes around 1830 and 1932.

A search for the etymology of the use of weight in regards to the darkness of the typeface revealed nothing.

Does anyone know the source of this phrase?

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1 Answer 1

OED has a draft addition from 1993:

Typog. (a) The heaviness of a fount of type, determined by the thickness of strokes in the individual sorts; (b) the degree of emphasis or blackness of a typeface.

1771 P. Luckombe Hist. & Art of Printing 239 A Fount of Roman Letter, of what Body or Weight soever, is constituted of Lower-case Sorts, Capitals, Double Letters, [etc.].

(along with several other later citations)

It is true that individual letterpress letters would be very slightly heavier if they printed a bolder letter [at the same size], but it's unlikely to be a substantial difference.

OED has a related entry for weight, which I suspect is at its root:

2. Associated with measure and number, esp. in figurative expressions referring to due proportion.

The earliest citation for this use (which would later be applied to type) is from c1250.

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I can confirm from personal experience that the term "weight" has been used in this sense at least since the early days of computer layout. My guess is that it has more to do with the more ponderous look of bold type than with the slight difference in mass of the cast letters. –  gmcgath May 22 '13 at 15:43
The fact that type is made from lead (Pb, element 82) is probably involved. A boldface type weighs more than a normal type. –  John Lawler May 22 '13 at 18:04
@JohnLawler — Not by a lot. Metal type wasn't loose letter shapes, but letters raised up from a block, and the block had most of the weight. –  gmcgath May 22 '13 at 18:42
Metal type started off as loose letter shapes and continued that way for centuries until the invention of the Linotype. Granted, the block was heavy, but the loose type was placed in it by hand. –  John Lawler May 22 '13 at 19:00
@JohnLawler — You clearly don't understand how movable type worked. Loose letter shapes would be impossible to line up. There's an illustration here that may help: sccc.premiumdw.com/web112/history-of-typography –  gmcgath May 22 '13 at 22:38

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