The term ‘serif’ refers to the stroke or small line extended at the end of a more significant stroke that formed the glyphs within a series of fonts or typeface—in this case, and it’s called a ‘serif typeface’ or ‘serifed typeface’. We are familiar with these so-called serif fonts—especially you, Times New Roman—but how much do we know about their history, significance, and subcategories?
The origins of serif can be traced back to the classical era in the form of the first official Greek writings on stone and the inscriptional Latin alphabet of Roman antiquities. These writings are often carved into the medium they were written on, which flared at the ends and corners of each stroke, creating what we now recognize as a serif.
As for the term itself, there are several theories regarding its etymology. In 1813, William Hollins defined ‘surprises,’ thought to be derived from Greek, as “projections which appear at the tops and bottoms of some letters, the O and Q excepted, at the beginning or end sometimes at each, of all” in his book. Thomas Curson Hansard referred to these projections as “ceriphs” in 1825.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cited both ‘serif’ and ‘sans-serif’ in 1830 and 1841, respectively, speculating that the former was a back-formation of the latter. However, OED did not cite the origin of the words. On the other hand, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary traces the Dutch word schreef, meaning “line, the stroke of the pen,” as the word’s origin.
Serif Fonts’ Classic Professionalism
Your high school teacher might have insisted that you use Times New Roman for your essays because it’s the “professional standard” or something. But do Times New Roman and its serifed kin really represent professionalism?
According to contentgroup, serif fonts are associated with authority, tradition, respect, and grandeur. The association with tradition and grandeur came from this letterform, having been around since Greek and Roman Antiquities. Since that era is viewed as Europe’s classical era, and their artifacts are nothing short of grandeur and sophistication, the public quickly associates the typeface with the expressions mentioned earlier.
The Antiquities associations also affect our perception of the letterform’s “professional” status. Since almost anything related to the Ancient Greek and Roman is perceived as a product of highly skilled professionals, this view carries over to the letterform modeled after the glyphs of that era.
More than Just Times New Roman
Perhaps the most well-known serifed font in the modern era, Times New Roman embodies the letterform itself. The medium stroke and defined extensions make reading in smaller-sized body texts easier. However, serif has so many other fonts to offer. The typefaces can be classified into four smaller subcategories based on their visual characteristics:
Dating back to the mid-15th century, the old-style typefaces are the oldest subcategory of the serifed letterform. Their main characteristics are the low line contrast, and the thinnest part of the glyph is sometimes at an angle. They typically have a left-inclining curve axis, and the serifs are often bracketed.
Also known as baroque style, its position defines typefaces in this subcategory as a bridge between the “old” and “modern” subcategories, named “transitional”. The line contrasts are more pronounced compared to their predecessors but still more subtle than the following subcategory.
Didone typefaces first emerged at the dusk of the 18th century following transitional or baroque style. The contrast between thick and thin lines is more visible, and the serifs are relatively lighter than their predecessors. Another characteristic of Didone typefaces are they tend to have vertical stress with constant width.
4. Slab Serif
The main characteristic of slab serifs is the more prominent serifs that are often as thick as the vertical lines themselves. They are the boldest of all the serif fonts, and some even look like a sans-serif font at a glance. Due to this, slab serifs are often used as attention-seeking devices in printed media.
That’s just about the essential things you should know about this classic traditional letterform. Even with their long history, serif fonts as a typeface still have many room to develop.