Why call it "counter"?

gemut2010's picture

What is the thinking behind the name "counter" in type anatomy?

I'm recently pondering over the translation of some typography glossary. We all use "counter" to describe the space enclosed or half enclosed in a letter, but how did this name come into being?

Simply, which meaning of the word "counter" did they employ to refer to that part of the letter? Some people just relate the image of a cashier counter to this meaning but I don't think it fits...

(Sorry if this is a stupid question, I'm not a native speaker of English language. If someone can even provide some historical reference it would be much appreciated.)


eliason's picture

You may know, in the days of hand-crafting metal types, that an engraver would carve a positive letter shape onto a metal rod called a punch and then strike that into softer metal to make the mold ("matrix") used to cast type. An engraver could relatively easily carve the outside shapes of that letter on the end of the punch, but it isn't easy to get into the interior spaces with the carving tool. So the punchcutter would make an additional punch of the negative shape, and strike that, head to head, into the punch first, then carve the rest. That additional punch for the negative space was called a counter punch (since the direction it was struck was counter to the way the punch proper was used). So interior spaces on the punch were achieved with the counterpunch tool, and the spaces in the resulting types were consequently called counters.
If you're interested in this nitty gritty, Fred Smeijers' /Counterpunch/ is a fantastic read.

gemut2010's picture

That helps a lot! And such a good reference for further digging, a thousand thanks to you, eliason!

Many translation versions are wrongly related to the noun form of "counter" instead of indicating the type cutting origin. So it really helps to clarify the myth.

gemut2010's picture

But what did people call it before type cutting came into being? Does "counter" comes before or after "counterpunch"? Can it be that people also called it counter in the past, because it is a negative space in a letter?

AzizMostafa's picture

> Does "counter" come before or after "punch"?

@ Does "counter" come before or after "clockwise"?!

@ How does the Clock go in China?! Clockwise, AntiClockwise or Counterclocwise?!

Bert Vanderveen's picture

Counter is from the Latin contra — ‘against’ or ‘opposite’. Which should explain the meaning of counterpunch…

It stands to reason that before type was made in a semi-industrial process with a punch, the term ‘counter’ was not used; the counter being the result of the use of a counterpunch.

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