"Pi" fonts

Where does the term “pi fonts” come from? And who was the first to use or popularize it?

I always assumed it was an odd abbreviation of “pictogram”, but it was never clear because the term is sometimes used to describe any non-alphanumeric/symbol font. If pi does indeed stand for pictogram, that would limit its relevance to a specific subset of symbol fonts – for example, mathematical symbols aren't pictograms.

That doesn't really match up with the kinds of fonts I typically think of when I hear the term “pi” either, which tend to be be more technical and abstract than they are pictorial. Maybe there's a connection to the mathematical concept of pi?

I also considered that there might be a connection to the letterpress concept of “printers pi(e)”, but any connection there seems rather weak.

For whatever it's worth, the term doesn't show up in anything on Google books until about 1970.

Joshua Langman's picture

Because pi fonts appear to be random collections of symbols, the term is a reference to "pied type," as you mention above. Typesetters could accidentally make "pi fonts" by dumping several different typecases all over the floor. I have heard this etymology from letterpress printers and others. Why do you think the link is "weak"?

Té Rowan's picture

Oh. I always thought the 'pi' was short for 'picture'.

Nick Sherman's picture

It seemed weak to me because the concept of jumbled type seems rather distinct from the concept of symbol fonts. If you pied a lockup of normal type, the jumble would still clearly contain standard letters and numbers.

You may well be right, but if so I'd be curious to see an example of the term “pi” being used to refer specifically to symbol fonts (as opposed to accidentally jumbled type) before 1970 or so.

riccard0's picture

I thought it was because of π, as the typical symbol that could be needed but will not be included in a “regular” font.

Pomeranz's picture

I belief it comes from the word pile. Because the pi fonts can not be sorted in any case.

frankrolf's picture

The expression ‘Pi’ fonts indeed stems from the greek letter π.
In the days of metal typesetting, the character sets were somewhat limited. Thus, setting special characters (such as mathematical symbols) had to be done using a font of symbols, which usually contained the letter π.

While the printer’s pie is a nice analogy, it would only really contain a π when you dropped a line including a ‘pi’ character.

I noticed that the expression ‘Pi fonts’ is much more common in the US, while in Europe you’d refer to dingbats or symbol fonts.
Probably the term just has been carried along through history here, ending up in font names of e.g. Adobe and Linotype.

Thank you for bringing up that topic! I had to ask some questions myself before being able to answer. :)

Thomas Phinney's picture

What Frank said.

Nick Sherman's picture

The π explanation makes more sense to me, perhaps even more so in the context of early digital fonts where the character sets were also quite limited.

I'd still be curious to know about when, where, and by whom the term was brought in to popular usage though. I can't say I've ever seen any letterpress type catalogs that refer to symbol fonts in general with the term “pi”, which makes me wonder if it didn't come in to usage in that context until the digital era (as the Google Books results would suggest).

Terms like “dingbats” and “symbol fonts” are much more common here in the US as well, but like you mentioned, the “pi” term seems to be kept lingering with all the fonts from Adobe, Bitstream, etc.

oldnick's picture

Since we seem to be tossing conjectures about, there may be some connection to "piebald" and, more obtusely, to "magpie"...

Aaron Thesing's picture

FWIW, I too have always just thought it referred to the π symbol.

Andreas Stötzner's picture

… because the concept of jumbled type seems rather distinct from the concept of symbol fonts.

*Jumbled type* is exactly what many vendors of symbol fonts imagine as being the appropriate concept for it.

ben_archer's picture

Hi Nick

Interesting question; have you asked around at work about this? I believe it is one of those ‘transatlantic-divide’ questions, whereby different answers are possible, according to US or UK usage.

The ‘printer's pie’ attribution for ‘pi fonts’ appears on p.44 of James Felici’s ‘The Complete Manual of Typography’ and this is also a definition given in the Webster dictionary (which might be why a lot of American typos believe it, although I find it hard to credit ‘pie’ getting shortened to ‘pi’ – particularly when both words sound identical).

However, on p.128 of Ken Garland’s much earlier ‘Illustrated Graphics Glossary’ (1980) – the definition states “pi characters: US term for ‘special sorts’ or ‘peculiars’, now in use in UK due to importation of US photocomposition machines.” Note the use of the individual noun, character, rather than the collective noun, font.

The introductory text on p.2 of the Mergenthaler Linotype catalogue of 1986 also refers to ‘pi characters’, where they number over 10,000 in stock, and this is the crux of the arguments for either Greek characters or even (abbreviated) pictograms; you won't find
any letterpress type catalogs that refer to symbol fonts in general with the term “pi” – because at that point there were never any entire fonts of ∏. It was always a single character, borrowed, like so many other characters symbolising mathematical functions, from the nearest-sized or styled font of Greek, and I would expect this practice to pre-date any American printing history.

Possibly, after Adobe Linotype produced the digital fonts called Universal-Greek w.Math Pi and Universal News w.Commercial Pi (dates for these?) the common usage slipped to ‘font’ rather than ‘character’, but we’d need more industry sources from the mid-’80s to corroborate this.

eliason's picture

On the date:

The perfect type are advanced to a selecting mechanism, where type which have been turned end for end, or become otherwise disarranged, are removed; then all wide type and regular 'pi' characters, such as stars, daggers, etc., are separated from the ordinary kind of characters, while the remaining type are advanced to their proper channels, the distribution being stopped when any channel is full.

"The Type-Composing Machine Upon Which Mark Twain Lost His Fortune." Inland Printer, April 1896, p. 55.

oldnick's picture

Okay: the Oxford English Dictionary dates the term "pie" as in pied type to the middle 17th century, which designation was derived from the fact that pies tend to contain a miscellany of items, similar in lack of homogeneity to those collected by magpies.So, it appears, my magpie conjecture was spot on...

dudefellow's picture

You may be interested to know that there was an ancient style of insular monumental writing used in Ireland in which letters from different alphabets were mixed together in text. Examples can be seen in the illuminated manuscripts, including the most famous Book of Kells held in Trinity College Dublin, and some inscriptions. Usually in this style evident in the extant epigraphic examples there was a practice of interesting ligatures that seem to suggest ambigrams. On the inscription on the Ardagh Chalice, which dates from perhaps about 750 AD and is now housed in the National Museum of Ireland, the twelve apostles are spelt using letters from the Greek and Roman alphabets. I have recently noticed that this inscription also seems to contain Semitic letters, including a zigzag lamed three times and probably aleph. The Greek letter pi occurs in the inscription three times, in the names of the apostles Peter, Paul, and Philip. Is the insular monumental the earliest example of a pied script? By the way, I have read that magpies used to be called simply pies.

quadibloc's picture

Joshua Langman's explanation, that it comes from "pied type", is the correct one, as attested to in many older books on typography - which I will note before this thread goes on much further!

Té Rowan's picture

The assumption, of course, being that there is a One True Origin.

hrant's picture

Might there be a connection to "peculiar", which means a non-alphanumeric sort?


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