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Is there a word for the artistic decorations that are often added to letters in some type-faces / fonts (e.g. caligraphy, etc.)

I'm thinking like a serif, but as far as I know, (I'm open to correction) a serif is a specific tail that's added to some letters, whereas I'm looking for a word that encapsulates all the different types of decorative strokes or flourishes that can be added to letters.

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  • What about “calligraphic serif” or “ornamental serif”?
    – user305707
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 20:59
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    The accepted answer is great. But I think the word you used, "flourish", is more common, not jargon, and applies more generally. For example it applies to typeset print or handwritten characters or computer font (I think).
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 1:07
  • 'curlicue', although that is not a generic term, it refers only to fancy twists/curls composed usually from a series of concentric circles.
    – smci
    Commented Jul 30, 2018 at 5:20

1 Answer 1

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The word you are looking for is swash, which is a term of art in typesetting. The OED’s 1989 definition for this is:

  1. Printing Applied to old-style capital letters having flourished strokes designed to fill up unsightly gaps between adjacent letters.

Most italic faces, for example, use a sloped roman by default for their capitals, reserving the swash versions for the true italic capitals as non-default alternates.

Robert Bringhurst defines swash rather better than the OED does in his Elements of Typographic Style:

Swash A letterform reveling in luxury. Some swash letters carry extra flourishes; others simply occupy an abnormally large ration of space. Swash letters are usually cursive and swash typefaces therefore usually italic. True italic capitals (as distinct from sloped roman capitals) are usually swash.

Here, also from Bringhurst, is an illustration of the difference. Compare his lines 3.1 and 4.1:

Bringhurst swash example

Here from the Cooper Italic Pro face is another illustration of swash alternates:

Cooper Italic Pro swash alternates demo

Notice how the line that reads:

Dusted off. Whittled into shape.

occurs twice. The first time it uses true italic (cursive, with swash) capitals for the D and the W, and the second time it uses false italic (sloped roman) capitals for those two letters. The difference between italic and roman is NOT the slope or slant; rather, it’s the letterforms themselves.

(As you see, the Georgia face we use does not have true italic capitals. Alas.)

Bringhurst further observes that:

Herman Zapf’s Zapf Renaissance italic and Robert Slimbach’s Poetica are faces in which the swash can be extended to the lower case.

Here is a demo of Zapf Rennaisance swash italics:

Zapf Renaissance demo

But for super-swash, nothing can beat Herman Zapf’s Zapfino, a script face not an italic one. Here’s a demo:

zapfino example 1

And here is another:

zapfino example 2

Whereas here is a Poetica demo:

Poetica swash demo

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  • Can one use swash lettering on, say, Microsoft Word? Or “true italic” as you called it?
    – user305707
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 21:05
  • Is it a font I can select?
    – user305707
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 21:05
  • @NathanM. It isn’t a font per se. If you don’t use a face that defaults to swash italic, then you need to use software that lets you select other than the default sorts for a particular letter. Professional publishing software always does.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 21:07
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    @NathanM. I have no idea: I don’t use Microsoft products. Try Adobe InDesign. :) Or read macworld.com/article/3052388/software/…
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 21:12
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    Read the link for how to access these.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 21:18

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