The Long S

Noodler's Ahab flex pen with De Atramentis Sherlock Holmes ink on Tamoe River loose leaf paper, Derek Jones, 2015
Noodler's Ahab flex pen with De Atramentis Sherlock Holmes ink on Tamoe River loose leaf paper, Derek Jones, 2015

Note: The Long S is currently disabled as I decide how I want to make it an optional feature of this blog. Turns out it was harder to read for people than I had thought. ;)

You might be wondering why this site seems to have a lisp. On closer examination you will see that these are not Fs, but long S’s, a letterform that was in wide use in the English language in previous centuries. Since the advent of the Roman alphabet, it and its descendants have had the long S approximately six times longer than we’ve been without it.

The long S fell out of favor as typesetting began overtaking handwritten documents in quantity. Literacy was becoming more and more important for those who lacked formal education, and as you’re reading this you can probably see how easy it is to get confused with the miniscual f.

As I started getting in to fountain pens, I started paying a lot more attention to handwriting. My own is terrible, and I’m fascinated by how skilled people used to be at it before typewriters and keyboards. When you begin to examine documents for their handwriting from the 17th-19th centuries in particular—the peak of English handwriting if you ask me—you’re going to encounter a lot of long S’s. So I began adopting the long S while trying to improve my own handwriting. I’ve not published a blog in ages, and I want to have fun with it so I’m doing it here as well.

This created two specific needs:

  1. having an easy way to publish content using long S’s (unicode U+017F)
  2. finding a typeface that supports the long S and is still easy to read in long-form content

Typing that unicode character is a chore, requiring extra keypresses, so instead I wrote a framework-level hook for ExpressionEngine that allows me to use the S key on my keyboard like normal. It runs the entire page output through a replacement routine that follows the typical rules of when to use a long S or not, and is smart enough to ignore HTML tags and code blocks. ſtring_replace() will give you a nasty syntax error afterall.

It was challenge to find appropriate typefaces, and in the end I went with Brioso Pro for body text and Cronos Pro Display for headings. Unfortunately, even with only two weights for body text and one weight for headings, these fonts are huge. My Typekit kit size is 932k, so my site is going to load slowly on the first load for people with slow connections. It’s an area where I decided it was worth the compromise. We’ll see if that remains true over time.

I hope you enjoy it or at least find it interesting. If you pronounce them as an F for comedic effect, no harm is done, I do it from time to time as well and it always makes me smile. I particularly like “Congress”.

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