Is it because France had impactful printers and typecutters like the Garamonds and Jensons in the Renaissance?

Or is it about being elegant and “Frenchified” when talking about something as peculiar and slightly arcane as typography? (Like Jacques in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, picking “sans” for the sake of rhythm…).

Serifs, after all, comes from the Dutch. So why “sans” and not just “without” serif? German, e.g., does have the option of “serifenlos”, and Italian “senza grazie” (grazie referring to serifs). German and Italian also call this category “Grotesk”/grottesco.

  • Hello, Florence. There is a very relevant (if doubtless unwelcome) comment about this from OED, found in the Online Etymological Dictionary. Sep 27 at 13:59
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    As the Online Etymology Dictionary says, "sans" in English long precedes "sans serif".
    – Stuart F
    Sep 27 at 14:36
  • 3
    More specifically, I'd guess that someone thought "serif" was French (the occurrence of various Frenchified forms like ceriph) and therefore assumed "sans" to be the natural prefix. But there doesn't seem to be evidence.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 27 at 14:39
  • 1
    Tout ce qui est dit en français semble élevé.
    – Dan
    Sep 28 at 20:43
  • Also be happy that the font names were not translated around the world ;-) See also Sans Souci; it seems French was quite "en vogue" in the times of Napoleon.
    – U. Windl
    Sep 29 at 10:32

4 Answers 4


The short answer is that we don't know for sure. Sans serif is a compound formed in English between the long-used English preposition from French sans and serif, most likely invented by printers creating new typefaces.


Oxford English Dictionary, "serif, n. and adj." gives an explanation that mentions the term sanserif:

Any of the cross-strokes or finishing strokes at the end of a principal stroke of a letter. Cf. sanserif n.

Many of the early spellings (late 18th, early 19th century) are inconsistent: ceriph and surriph show up as early forms. Serif as a spelling shows up sometime in the 19th century. Also, the word is Dutch in origin: schreef means a line or a stroke.

Meanwhile, sanserif appears in the 19th century, sometimes as san-serif, sometimes sans-surryphs or sans-ceriph before the spelling stabilizes as sans serif:

A form of type without serifs: called also grotesque. Also attributive. Cf. serif n.

Context in Printing

While sans serif typefaces were already around, London printer Vincent Figgins published the first known mention of "sans-serif" in his Specimen of Printing Types. The OED lists 1830 as the first use; here is one page from the 1834 edition, via Internet Archive:

enter image description here

The use is jargony. The entire book has typefaces with labels referring to size (e.g., "twenty line pica," "two-line great primer") as well as form (e.g., "antique," "sans-serif," "perspective"). Figgins's jargon would soon seep into other guides. Here is Alexander Wilson, c. 1842:

enter image description here

By 1842, the word was already in use in debates about which font is more appropriate for the visually impaired (Statements of the Education, Employments, and Internal Arrangements, Adopted at the Asylum for the Blind, Glasgow):

Dr. Fry's alphabet is the sans-serif, of type-founders,-- plain roman capitals, merely deprived of the small strokes at their extremities.


Why would a printer combine a French-original preposition with a Dutch-original stem? We could make a few guesses. The preposition sans was already in English, and it has sometimes been used for non-French words - sans delay. It is quite possible that the people who first used it saw serif as a technical term - or even mistakenly thought it was a French one - and felt sans was more appropriate to use with serif. Also, there may be an argument from form: more words are formed from sans than from without, illustrating how open the two prepositions are to forming new words. (22 words headed by sans in the OED and 3 headed by without.) In any case, it's hard to say for sure. Word formation can be an arbitrary and idiosyncratic process.

  • 2
    sans délai is French
    – Henry
    Sep 28 at 12:06
  • 3
    @Henry "Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything", in As You Like It, are all non-French words ;-) Sep 28 at 14:34
  • @Henry True. I was misled by the English spelling. I could have also used sans wings or sans prick or sans aircraft, looking at some of the examples in the OED. Sep 28 at 14:56
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    To add to the speculation, the Dutch use "schreefloos", and English has the equivalent "-less" suffix. "serifless" would have made perfect sense. The fact it's not used indicates that the "sans serif" was not borrowed from Dutch.
    – MSalters
    Sep 28 at 16:05
  • 4
    Maybe the alliteration sounds better than aserif or serifless. Sep 28 at 18:01

sanserif (n.)

A form of type without serifs: called also grotesque. Also attributive. Cf. serif n.

1830 Lines Pica San-Serif.
Figgins's Spec. Printing Types 8

1976 Sans serif, to him, was the best, if not the only kind of type suitable for the modern world.
Visible Language vol. X. 88


Probably formed within English, by compounding. Etymons: sans prep., serif n.

Probably < sans prep. + serif n.


The word serif, however, has not hitherto been found till much later than the first appearance of sanserif, and it has been suggested that it may have been evolved from the supposed compound.

sans (prep.)

Without. Now archaic (chiefly with reminiscence of Shakespeare), jocular, and Heraldry.

Before the time of Shakespeare used almost exclusively with nouns adopted from Old French, in collocations already formed in that language, as sans delay, sans doubt, sans fable, sans pity, sans return. Even in some of our earliest examples, however, a native English synonym has been substituted for the Romanic noun in the phrase, as in sans biding = sans delay.

c1300 Of gold he made a table Al ful of steorren, saun fable. Kyng Alisaunder 134

The word "serif" is more easily illustrated than described. The ordinary roman capitals (...) have serifs; the characters known to sign-painters as "block letters" (...) do not posses them, and are called by printers "sans-serif," or without serifs, a form which would suggested a French origin were it not that in the fifteen century "sans" was as good English as French. The etymology of the word is wholly unknown, and its uncertainty in this respect is emphasized by the fact that scarcely any two authorities spell it alike.
R. Coupland Harding—On Kerns and Serifs in Transactions of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Vol. 29, p.97 (1896)

In typography and lettering a sans-serif, gothic, or simply sans letterform is one that does not have extending features called "serifs" at the end of strokes. The term comes from the French word, meaning "without" and "serif" of uncertain origin, possible from the Dutch word schreef meaning "line" or "pen stroke." San-serif fonts are often used for headings rather than for body text. They are also used to convey simplicity and modernity or minimalism.
E. Buky et al.; The Copyeditor's Workbook (2019)

The word "serif" is itself modern, not ancient; it is first found in nineteenth-century typefounders' catalogues from England...and is of unsure etymology. "Sans serif," in fact has been found to precede the word "serif" in chronological usage.
Patricia Butz; The Art of the Hekatompedon Inscription and the Birth of the Stoikhedon Style (2010)


Unless Will the Quill was trying to flaunt his knowledge of the latest loan-words, English took sans unto itself long before Shakespeare sprinkled it so happily around the stage (eg: in All the World's a Stage, from As You Like It)

Etymonline, eg, suggests 'sans' became Anglicised at least a century before Will wrapped his quill round it.

Given that English court Norman French had used the term since the Conquest, and it came from that Latin which had been the lingua-franca of Europe's rulers and intelligentsia from hundreds of years earlier and remained so for centuries after, why is its etymology worth enquiring about?


Probably because "sans" is sorta English, "la belle dame sans merci" being well know, and adapted/used in other context. "Sans x" isn't that common, but it's not really that unknown either.

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    W.Shakespeare, on the last of the 'seven ages of Man': Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. Sep 28 at 7:54

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