More Words to Letterpress By

As the school semester was about to end, Mary thought it might be kind of fun to give her Maryland Institute College of Art letterpress class a quiz. You know, just to see if they’d been listening, or if they were simply suffering Mary’s chatter until it was their turn on the press.

To her surprise, they’d absorbed a lot. Shop Boy wasn’t all that shocked — Mary always gets her message across loud and clear.

But they didn’t get everything.

True story: I’ve mentioned in the past that Shop Boy was a science major for two years in college. Well, one of the requirements was a class in botany. And the only professor teaching botany back then was a bored-rotten blowhard of a dude famous for failing, like, three quarters of his students. You know, the whole “I’m doing this for your own good — if you’re not smart enough for my botany class, you’re not smart enough for a career in science. Might as well learn that right now.”

You should have seen the final exam. Botany? Please. It was astrophysics. Appropriately, Shop Boy was “in the weeds,” as they say of lost souls, and this professor was driving the lawnmower.

Scored 27 out of 100, and the only reason I got past zero was the essay section. I had no idea what the enzymes of the carrot broke down into — must have been a paragraph I skipped in the 13th required book for the class. But I did know my Bugs Bunny. And in that 25-minute, frenzied term paper of an answer, Shop Boy somehow blathered, bleated, bloviated, blustered and bluffed his way to a passing grade. (Yes, graded on the curve, 27 was a D-plus. Looney Tunes, for sure.)

As he handed me back the exam, hand shaking and still about to wet his pants by the looks of things, a friend whispered to me: “He’s laughing at you. That’s BS!”

“Oh, you don’t know the half of it,” Shop Boy responded.

So there was the stack of Mary’s completed quizzes. Pretty good stuff. No botany majors, mind you, but well done.

And then I saw it. Next to a section on letterpress terms was an adorable little drawing, really a masterpiece of simplicity (hey — it’s a college of art), of a fox-like animal with a caption that read: “The Common Reglet.”

“Kid gets an A,” I said.

After all, what does the word “reglet” mean to anyone who’s never assembled type in a chase for printing? Not a whole bunch. These kids were all about polymer. And that, my friends, is what we call a “teachable moment.”

And so is this. For those who might have stumbled upon this blog while looking for something, um, very different — I can see the keywords that got you here, you bad boys and girls, but I won’t tell Mom — a reglet is a strip of wood used as spacing material between lines of type or to help lock your form in the chase, or metal frame, for moving to the printing press.

Now, Shop Boy’s not as cantankerous a cuss as that old botany dude, but while I’ve got you here, what do you say we make sure we’re all a little more up-to-date on our letterpress words? Then next time somebody asks you, the answers will be on the tip of your tongue. Oh, don’t thank Shop Boy. Consider it a public service. Let’s begin …

Common printshop expressions and their meanings:

Taping the rails: Amtrak’s track-maintenance program. (Sorry, a little commuter humor there. )

Leveling compound: generally, gin, tonic and a wedge of lime. But there are many brand names and variations.

Used to loosen Shop Boy up before delivering the news about the latest press purchase. Also useful outside the shop. For instance, when Mary needed to persuade Shop Boy that a three-story Baltimore rowhouse wasn’t too much space for two people, that Shop Boy wouldn’t be a slave to the dust bunnies, that the fact it smelled like her Grandmama’s house was a good thing … she really poured on the leveling compound. Suddenly it was very clear: I had no vote.

By the way, Grandmama’s house in Raleigh, N.C., was a donut’s throw from an original Krispy Kreme stand. Oh, my. The stampede down the front steps when the neon “Hot Now” sign lit up. Back then, you could buy two dozen and get one dozen free. I mean, what would you do?

Dust bunnies: After a certain point, Shop Boy just likes to think of them as thick, gray, shag carpeting.

Pulling a negative: This is when, usually late, late at night after a long, frustrating day (or a whole weekend) — when your feet hurt, your head pounds and you realize that bedtime’s just a dream — you become something like the opposite of your true nature. Some, including Mary, have labeled this phenomenon “being a jerk.” While this seems a bit simplistic to Shop Boy, she’s got a raised pica pole and a whole bunch of “uh-uh, not tonight, pal” on her side.

Depression: This is when, usually late, late at night after a long, frustrating day (or a whole weekend) — when your feet hurt, your head pounds and you realize that bedtime’s just a dream — the impression you have is still something like the opposite of the one you are seeking.

Bible bump: This is praying for that little extra push to get you through the night — without pulling a negative — and mercy and deliverance from this deadline.

Actually, this is a fun expression, taught to Mary and Shop Boy by a compositor at the newspaper where we met. The woman was clearly having tremendous pain in her hand at the spot of this big lump. We asked if she was OK. “Oh, that’s just a little Bible bump,” she said, explaining the cure she’d undergone for previous bouts: You put your hand on the counter, somebody grabs the Bible, raises it above their head … and smashes it down on your hand to break the cyst. Relief is yours. Um, after a while.

Gulp.

Talk about putting the fear of God into someone. Which brings us to …

Digitalis: From the Greek for “injury to fingers or toes, which turn red, swollen and angry after being smashed between two heavy objects.” Mary about gave Shop Boy a heart attack the other day when she forgot to let go of the tail end of a card and slammed her fingers in the Vandercook.

A for effort. D for dumb … we’ve all been there before, haven’t we?

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