Printer’s Devil

I stumbled across a fantastic word at work that I have to share. It’s devilling.

We also know the noun devil meaning ‘demon’ and that came from the Old English deofol ‘evil spirit’, which originated in Late Latin diabolus, also the source of diabolical (c. 1500).

But the form devilling is altogether more interesting, because in the Scottish law system, devilling refers to the process trainees must go through to become barristers – the equivalent to the English pupillage system. And this makes it even better: the trainee barrister’s mentor is aptly named a devil master.

It seems that the idea came from an earlier phrase the printer’s devil, who was a young apprentice or errand-boy in a printing office and, through the ‘apprentice’ meaning, it came into a law context. So why was a printing office errand-boy a devil?

There are a number of theories out there. Firstly, it could be because the boy would often be covered in ink. Black being a colour associated with the dark arts, devil was deemed an appropriate nick-name.

Another theory suggests that William Caxton, the first English printer and publisher, had an assistant named ‘Deville’ which evolved into devil over time and came to refer to all printers’ assistants.

One potential explanation is that old or broken type was thrown into what was then termed a hellbox. The printer’s devil would be charged with the task of throwing the hellbox’s contents into the furnace for recasting.

A fourth and rather fanciful suggestion is that Johann Gutenberg’s business partner, Johann Fust, sold a number of Gutenberg’s bibles to the French King Louis XI under the pretence that they were hand-written manuscripts. When the king and his officials noticed that the manuscripts were identical, they arrested Fust for witchcraft – the red ink supposedly being blood. He was later freed when the truth came out but many continued to associate printing with devilry and regarded it with suspicion, hence a rather dubious step to the term printer’s devil.

However, my favourite theory by far is that there is a devil who haunts scribes and printing houses called Titivillus. This mischievous demon introduces errors into text and misspells words. He also, in church services, collects idle chat and mispronounced or mumbled words of service to take to Hell. Eventually, the apprentice became s suitable source of blame to replace Titivillus and he was referred to as the printer’s devil instead.

Incidentally, an article on Wikipedia also remarks that ‘Marc Drogin noted in his instructional manual Medieval Calligraphy: Its history and technique (1980) “for the past half-century every edition of The Oxford English Dictionary has listed an incorrect page reference for, of all things, a footnote on the earliest mention of Titivillus.”’

Well, as I now work in a publishing house, I can say with certainty that the printer’s devil is a reality and he’s been very busy with my articles. I think that’s the only possible explanation.

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Blurb

There are many ways that new words can appear in a language. Sometimes words are loaned from foreign languages. Sometimes words evolve and develop new meanings. Some words are stuck together to make new ones; others are shortened, lengthened or clipped. But rarely is a word simply plucked from thin air; most words have some sort of family tree. Blurb is perhaps one of the best made-up words there is.

Some say that Gelett Burgess, and American humorist, coined the term in 1907. At that time, it was the custom to give books a special dust jacket and on it would be printed testimonials to the novel as well as a picture of an eye-catching woman. Burgess’ novel, Are you a Bromide?, was selling well and it featured an especially buxom blonde on the jacket. He dubbed the character Miss Blinda Blurb and the name stuck, coming to mean not only the picture but also any flattering praise printed on the cover until eventually the pictures dropped out of use and blurb came to refer simply to the back cover summary intended to attract readers that we see on every book nowadays.

Burgess used the word to mock the excessive appraisal found in blurbs and in doing so vastly popularized the term.

“To ‘blurb’ is to make a sound like a publisher. The blurb was invented by Frank A. Munsey when he wrote on the front of his magazine in red ink ‘I consider this number of Munsey’s the hottest pie that ever came out of my bakery.’ … A blurb is a check drawn on Fame, and it is seldom honored.” [“Publishers’ Weekly,” May 18, 1907]