The Devil, Part Two

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A note from Stephen Thom has recalled me to a post that I wrote in May: “Speak of the Devil!”

Maeve, I might suggest double-checking the “printer’s devil” expression.  It was my understanding that the term referred to the compartmentalized wooden tray that holds all the little metal letter stamps used in a printing press.  If that tray got tipped over and the letters spilled the printer would need hours and hours reorganizing the tray (having a devil of a time in the process).  

This was told to me when my grade-school class trip visited a recreated colonial American village; the man working the old-time printing press told us that was where the term “printer’s devil” came from.

I know from experience what a devil of a job it is to sort out pied type, i.e., moveable type that has been mixed up. I had the happy fortune to work in a letterpress print shop as an undergraduate. I wasn’t allowed near the huge rotary press or the hot linotype machine, but I set type for headlines using a composing stick, and printed my own stationery on the little platen press.

I was also called a “devil” by the elderly shop manager. It was a sad day when we got our first offset machine and saw the beginning of the end.

The “compartmentalized wooden tray” is called a type case. There’s an “upper case” that holds the capital letters, and a “lower case” that holds the small letters. Yep, that’s where we get the terms uppercase and lowercase. The small letters are placed in the lower case because they’re the ones most used and the lower case is easier to reach. One of my least favorite jobs was going through the compartments looking for pied type.

The etymology for printer’s devil offered by the man in the colonial village is one I’ve not been able to find in any printed reference I’ve consulted.

Here’s the entry in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable:

A printer’s devil. A printer’s message boy; formerly, the boy who took the printed sheets from the tympan of the press. Moxon says (1683): “They do commonly so black and bedaub themselves that the workmen do jocosely call them devils.”

One of my favorite reference books is an 1898 edition of Brewer’s The Reader’s Handbook that I acquired years ago in England. This fat little red book is now broken in two from the use it’s had from me. I learned only recently that the erudite old gentleman also produced a Dictionary of Phrase & Fable that first appeared in 1870.

The 80 or so “devil” references in my library copy of the Dictionary‘s eighth edition cover four closely-printed two-column pages.

The devil only knows how many more “devil” expressions are in the seventeenth edition that I just ordered for myself.

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7 thoughts on “The Devil, Part Two”

  1. Deborah,
    No, I don’t recall that expression for an exclamation point.

    We did have a “Second Coming” font: type so big it was being saved to set the headlines for the Second Coming!

  2. HI,
    I was once a “print devil” and still involved with the trade as a Linotype Machinist/Mechanic.

    Check out the below site:

    There’s so many different facets to this trade – sometimes it’s mind boggling.


  3. I love that there is actually a Second Coming type for when Jesus returns. Too bad I won’t get to see it ~ When He comes back for us I am gone!!

  4. Back when I set hot type, we called the “compartmentalized wooden tray” a California Job Box. I have no idea why.

    I was always told the saying, “Mind your ‘Ps’ and ‘Qs'” referred to how easy it is to mix up these lowercase letters.

  5. hi all,
    Found a couple answers for California Job Case……

    By Fred William- Editor-Publisher, Type & Press – Published Fall 1992


    and then there’s this one . . .

    see ya . . .
    jer merrill

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