March 29, 2016

Words of the Month - First Impressions

        Printmaking hasn’t left its mark only in the world of art.  There are quite a few words, too, that come from print-related roots.

print - The first meaning (c. 1300 from French) was the mark or impression made by a stamp or seal - in other words, relief printmaking.  From there we gradually turned it into a verb, and simultaneously expanded the meaning to include printing on a press, handwriting in imitation of press-printed typography, making copies of photographs, and so on.

press - Ultimately from Latin, the word describes all sorts of things that exert force, including crowds as well as machines for squeezing clothes, grapes, cheese, unfortunate people, and so on.  The printing press came to England in 1476, and from there we developed the meanings of journalism and journalists.  There are many words that include the root press and have come to express a wide variety of figurative senses.
     express - (late 14th century) to press or squeeze out one’s thoughts or vision
     depress - to force or push down, first physically (and politically, early 14th c) and later emotionally (1620s)
     suppress, oppress, repress - all along the lines of squashing things into powerlessness
     impress - (late 14th century) to stamp deeply on the mind
And from there we also get impressionable, and impressive.
     pressing - urgent, exerting force or pressure
     espresso - borrowed from Italian later, of course (1945), but it’s coffee made with steam pressure.  (No printmaking there.)

stereotype - (1798) a method of printing from a solid plate, and from there an image reproduced without change.  You can see the connection to the figurative sense of a preconceived and oversimplified image of a particular group of people, which was first recorded in 1922.

cliché - (1825) derived from the French for “click,” this was the printer’s jargon for the printing block used in stereotyping.  It came to have a figurative sense of something reused over and over without originality, first recorded in 1888.
        Those last two reveal a rather unflattering view of printmaking: the mindless reproduction aspect of it.  When I’m printing I hope to be less clichéd and more expressive - and maybe even make an impression on someone!

[Pictures: Printing Press, wood engraving by Carl Montford (Image from Davidson Galleries);
A Koenig-type cylindrical press manufactured by Applegath and Cowper, early nineteenth century (Image from;
Printing Press, wood block print of the German school, 15th century (Image from]

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