I have been reading a medical book by one late surgeon Thomas Gale. I was wondering the following mix-up of letters 'u','v' and 'b'.

This states: "to have the cure of".

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Letter 'u' is used in the word "have". Letter 'u' is also used in the word "cure" as in modern English.

In the following word letter 'b' is used to indicate 'v' as in "venomous".

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The second word in the next one took me a while to clarify.

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Apparently it states "The usuall gonnepouder".

I understand that 'u' was used to indicate 'w' as in modern English (powder). I just don't get a hold of the logic of using 'b' to indicate the pronunciation of letter 'u'.

Is there a freely accessible online resource in which this logic would be explained? Or did not the printer run out of types or is this purely random?

  • 1
    Keep in mind that typesetting mimicked handwriting, and in handwritten script the character v, for instance, would be written differently depending on whether it was at the start of a word or embedded within the word. Likewise there was very little difference between u and v. (And, of course, the boy (forget the title of the job) who was supposed to sort the used letters back into their bins may have erred.)
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 8, 2015 at 0:12
  • Additionally, I'm quite certain that in your last snippet, it's "The vſuall Gonneponder". That's not a "u" that's an "n". What it means, I don't know, but that letter is quite clearly the same as the two "n"s before it: "Gonnepo..." It doesn't look anything like the "u" in "vſuall"
    – Au101
    Jul 8, 2015 at 13:44

4 Answers 4


'V' and 'u' were regarded as the same letter from antiquity until well after this time. Some texts used only one form; some used both forms, but the choice was often either arbitrary, or based on something other than the sound (such as aesthetic reasons).

The letter you have identified as 'b' is not 'b': it is 'v' - it appears that in that text, the form with the ascender is used word-initially.

  • 4
    Moreover, it seems (going by those three images alone) that ⟨v⟩ was used word-initially and ⟨u⟩ elsewhere, which is in fact in agreement with what was the standard distinction between the two for a few centuries; the Wikipedia article on the letter V has a bit more about this. Jul 7, 2015 at 19:28
  • +1 I learned something there! I knew that wasn't intended to be a 'b', but I just thought it was effectively a "random" variant form from the scribe. I now realise it's almost certainly a deliberate choice based on the "word-initial" position. Jul 7, 2015 at 19:29
  • @Colin Fine that was quick answer, thanks! That makes it clear. The ascender made it unclear for me
    – arkiaamu
    Jul 7, 2015 at 19:30
  • This seems to clear it up satisfactorily, but it would be interesting for comparison to see some images from the text where a “b” really is intended. Is this variant v-with-ascender indistinguishable from “b” in the same text, or are they subtly different?
    – PLL
    Jul 7, 2015 at 21:52
  • 2
    @PLL I would expect the "b" to have a straight ascender, like the "h" in the first image; the v-with-ascender is more a swash than an ascender. File:Old_English_typeface.svg from the Wikimedia Commons shows what I mean (albeit in a modern recreation font), as does the Wikipedia article Fette Fraktur (though this is a German font, rather than an English one). Jul 8, 2015 at 10:25

During the late Middle Ages, two forms of 'v' developed, which were both used for its ancestor 'u' and modern 'v'. The pointed form 'v' was written at the beginning of a word, while a rounded form 'u' was used in the middle or end, regardless of sound. So whereas 'valor' and 'excuse' appeared as in modern printing, 'have' and 'upon' were printed 'haue' and 'vpon'. The first distinction between the letters 'u' and 'v' is recorded in a Gothic alphabet from 1386, where 'v' preceded 'u'. Printers eschewed capital 'U' into the 17th century and the distinction between the two letters was not fully accepted by the French Academy until 1762. Even today, jewellery brand BVLGARI uses 'u' and 'v' interchangeably.

[History of U and V]


Something similar happens with the letters i and j—at least in the first volume of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1756), where, for example, you'll find consecutive entries for jam, jamb, iambick, and jangle, and later for jasmine, jasper, iatroleptick, and javel.

It isn't that Johnson thinks that i and j are identical or indistinguishable. His introduction to the letter i is clear on the relevant distinctions as well as on the combined treatment:

I is in English considered both as a vowel and consonant. I vowel has a long sound, as fine, thine, which is usually marked by an e final ; and a short sound, as fin, thin. ...

J consonant has invariably the same sound with that of g in giant ; as jade.

The second volume of Johnson's Dictionary offers a similar treatment of u and v, with vaward immediately preceding uberty, and udder immediately preceding veal, for example.

Here is Johnson's discussion of u and v:

V, has two powers, expressed in modern English by two characters, V consonant and U vowel. U, the vowel, has two sounds ; one clear, expressed at other rimes by eu, as obtuse ; the other close, and approaching to the Italian u, or English oo, as obtund.

V, the consonant, has a sound in English, uniform. It is never mute.


As the other answers mention, the b in your example is just a v with ascender because it's the first letter in the word.

BUT, confusing b and v is an easy mistake to make - especially for people whose first language is Spanish, because in Spanish b and v are both pronounced like the English b.

The mixup of b and v also happened in other romance languages and is called betacism.

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