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April 07, 2015

The Origin of the Word ‘Nib’


  MacKinnon’s stylograph, and . . .



        The word “pen” comes metaphorically from “penna”, the Latin word for “feather”, or “quill”, and the invention of the pen, or quill, can be dated to sometime between the 2nd and 6th centuries A.Z.  Before that, the popular writing instrument was the reed, or “calamus” in Greek.  Henry Mills Alden states in his article in the August 1868 issue of Harper’s that, “Clemens of Alexandria (180 A.Z.) mentions both ‘feather’ and ‘reed’ as used for writing in his time”, although I have been able to find only the word “reed”.  But even so, there was a perceived need for a nib with greater durability, and so the first pens of gold and silver and brass date back even to the time of the reed and the quill.  The earliest metal pen found so far is one excavated in 1891 by archeologist Charles Waldstein in a tomb from the 4th-century B.Z. on the Greek island of Euboea.  He makes a good case in his 1892 book, The Finding Of The Tomb Of Aristotle, for the claim that the pen belonged to Aristotle, and states that up to that time it is “the only specimen I have heard of as having been found in Greece”.  Michael Finlay in his Western Writing Implements writes, “Another [brass pen], which came to light during the excavation of Pompeii and therefore pre-dating the destruction of that place in 79 A.Z., is now in the Naples Museum”.  Some think “[metal] nibs never would have quilled a seriph to a sheepskin”, that they are writing instruments from the paper age, but here is evidence for metal nibs in the time of papyrus and parchment and vellum.
        The 1700s saw the first appearance of steel pens.  Roger North writes in a letter to Mrs. Foley on March 8, 1700 that he is using a steel nib made in France.  His letter reads,

You will hardly tell by what you see that I write with a steel pen.  It is a device come out of France, of which the original was very good, and wrote very well, but this is but a copy ill made.  When they get the knack of making them exactly, I do not doubt but the government of the goose quill is near an end, for none that can have these will use others.
Thomas Ratcliffe, in his May 13, 1899 note on pens in Notes & Queries, bemoaned the loss of the art of fine-tuning a quill for writing, and all within the span of his lifetime.  He writes,
The art of cutting a quill by adept “quill-drivers” was dying out when I first began schooling. . . . The goose-quill pen died a hard death as a commonly used writing tool. My first schoolmaster was a first-rate hand at cutting a quill, and he could use it with wonderful effects in flourishes.
Such a person, whether mending or using a quill pen, a gold pen, or a fountain pen, must surely be a master pensmith, for as Joseph Emerson wrote in his 1826 book, The Useful Penman, “As there is no probability, that metallic pens will ever supersede those in common use, it will always be desirable, that every writer should be a penmaker”, that is, someone who is “licensed to quill”.  Ratcliffe went on to limn a portrait of the opposite type, neither a penman, nor a wordsmith, but a penster, to the letter.  “My last master”, he writes, “could neither cut a quill nor use one to advantage. . . . Those who can cut a decent writing quill are now few”.  The correspondent in the Sheffied Daily Telegraph, January 11, 1872 writes that, before the close of the 18th century, he made brass pens, “which, however, I never used, nor steel ones either, as long as I could get a ‘goose quill’, good, bad or indifferent”.  The author of the note in Notes & Queries, July 19, 1873 gives a short personal history of the steel and gold pens that he encountered, but he ends with, “From the introduction of steel pens to the present time I have sought for a good one; but neither in gold nor iron have I found anything so pleasant to write with as a good or even middling goose-quill”.
        When the word “nib”, or “neb”, first appeared, it referred to something nubby, or something that sticks out like a handle on a scythe, something short and stubby, and it usually took the plural form and referred to a bird’s beak, or the tines of a fork, or the two points of a quill created by the slit that separates them.  When the word was applied to pens, it was used metaphorically, for a previous metaphor.  Thomas Middleton, in his Micro-Cynion of 1599, refers to “my pen’s two nibs”, and Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, in their 1611 play Roaring Girl, again use the word in the line “lawiers pens . . . have sharp nibs”.  There was a brief period between 1837 and 1865 when the hand grips on scythes were called nibs in the US patents.  Dexter Pierce’s patent no. 144 for an “Improvement In Scythe-Snaths [Commonly Called The ‘Snead’]” from Mar 11, 1837, is the first of these interesting early uses of the word “nib” for the handles, which look like “nebs”, or “nubs”.  David Sawyer’s patent no. 6,474 for an “Improvement In Scythe-Nibs” from May 22, 1849, is another interesting early use of the word “nibs”.  It’s actually a patent for the “thole”, a mechanism used to attach the scythe handles, or “hafts”, to the scythe pole, or “snath”, but the claim reads, “for fastening the nib upon the snath”.  The haft and thole together, apparently, comprised the nib.  Also see US patent nos. 680, 2,155, 2,208, 2,537, 3,175, 5,930, 6,879, 9,469, 15,849, 35,798, 41,988, and 50,891.  In 1840, the Penny Cyclopaedia still refers to the two points of a pen as “each nib”.  Edward Knight in his American Mechanical Dictionary of 1874-77 says, “Pens have usually two nibs”, but at the same time, elsewhere in the same work, he uses the word “nib” in its new, singular sense meaning the whole pen point.  And by 1899, when Ratcliffe wrote the following note on “pens”, the terms had been stabilized, and the word “nib” had become the standard term for the pen point.

Quills as pens remained in use in some houses as the only writing tool up to a dozen to twenty years ago. . . . People used to ask for “a quill pen,” or “a quill,” when they wanted a pen, and both steel and quill were always called “pens,” buyers asking for fine or other “nibs” or “nebs.”  Nowadays nearly all ask for “nibs” when they require pens. The word “pen” has almost dropped out of usage, except to express the pen and holder combined.  Persons invariably ask for a box of “nibs,” appearing to lose sight of the fact that “nib” or “neb” is a point, and that the points of pens alone are not to be had. . . . Children only know a pen as holder and pen combined.  They ask for “nibs” or “pen nibs,” and when asked if they do not mean “pens,” the reply is, “No! nibs!”
Another note in Notes & Queries from August 26, 1899, quoting from a 1680 pamphlet titled The Mischief Of Impositions, talks about a similar change from “ink-horns” to “ink-glasses”, that is, from inkstands to ink bottles.  Inkstands and inkwells go with dip pens, and ink bottles correspond to fountain pen technology.  The difference is that the inkwell has a temporary, or loose closure, or no closure at all, while the ink bottle has a secured top for the lengthy waits between refillings.  Well, “if the late change from ink-horns to ink-glasses”, and from pens to nibs, had but one thing to teach us it would be just how “frail and brittle” all language is.
        Joseph Bramah was already selling his “quill nibs” in the early 1800s, which he called “fragment forms” in his 1809 British patent no. 3,260.  These quill slip nibs were the precursors of steel slip nibs.  A quill’s shaft was split in half lengthwise and then four or five nibs were made from each half of the shaft.  These semi-cylindrical nibs had to be slipped into a curved slot in the end of a pen holder, in the same manner that steel slip nibs later were, thus leading Knight to say, as mentioned above, “They were perhaps the first nibs, the progenitors of a host of steel, gold, and other nibs”.  The article titled “Pen” in the 1962 Encyclopaedia Britannica states that it was Bramah’s invention that “first familiarized the public with the appearance and use of the nib slipped into a holder”, but Finlay cites an even earlier source.  He credits Thomas Palmer with producing such nibs in 1806, cut by hand with a knife, but he does credit Bramah with producing the first quill nibs with the aid of a machine.
        In the early 1800s, all that remained to be discovered regarding steel nibs was a way to give them more elasticity and flexibility, and a way to mass-produce them mechanically.  Peregrine Williamson’s 1809 US patent no. 1,168X for a “Metal Writing Pen” was the first patent for a steel nib with three slits, a center split and two side slits for flexibility.  James Perry achieved greater flexibility in his 1830 British patent no. 5,933 by drilling a hole at the top of the slit in the nib, and by adding side slits, which had already been done by Williamson 21 years earlier.  In his 1831 British patent no. 6,169, Joseph Gillott achieved an improvement in flexibility that consisted, in part, of making nibs with thin, elongated, tapered points.  Finlay, however, states that Jacob Wise was already making such flexible nibs around 1803, and he shows an example of an anonymous, unstamped nib with an elongated aperture at the top of the slit that preceded Perry’s patent.  As Finlay tells it, some flexible nibs Gillott was shown in 1822 definitely influenced him, and he started making such nibs only after he had seen them.  In fact, the discovery was probably “in the air”, so to speak, and belongs to no one person.  Henry Bore wrote in 1886 in his The Story Of The Invention Of Steel Nibs that he “failed to trace” the originator of mechanically made nibs, “and his identity is lost among the ‘sowers’ who failed to reap the harvest of their inventions”.  As a comic aside, Thomas Hood wrote his hilarious poem, Ode To Perry, The Inventor Of The Patent Perryan Pen, around 1829 or 1830, so Perry’s pens were famous right from the start.  In fact, one could even go so far as to call him “the original ‘his nibs’”.
        The article titled “Pen” in the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, and James Maginnis in his 1905 Cantor Lectures both credit John Mitchell as the first maker of machine-made nibs in 1822, and James Perry as the first maker of steel slip nibs, ones that slip into a curved slot in the end of a separate holder.  Until then, steel pens consisted of a metal tube with a nib formed at one end and a holder with a tapered end inserted into the other end of the tube.  Dietmar Geyer in his Collecting Writing Instruments writes that it is John Mitchell who got the idea of stamping pen nibs out of thin sheets of rolled steel by using a steam-driven stamping machine.  At the same time, Joe Nickell in his Pen, Ink, And Evidence credits Gillott with developing this modern method of nib making by shaping them from blanks stamped out of sheets of rolled steel.  The point was moot, because Bramah was already selling his quill slip nibs by 1809.
        With these developments, the modern look, if not the material substance, of the gold nib and the fountain pen nib had been achieved.  What Bramah’s quill slip nib, and later the steel slip nib, contributed to the design of the fountain pen was the process of manufacture of nibs by stamping out separate blanks.  The familiar shape of the slip nib, and the whole concept of attachment to a separate holder by being slipped into the penholder or fountain pen, had been achieved.  Even so, there was a resistance to the use of these quill slip nibs in the US, and along with this came a lack of exposure to the word “nib”.  An article in The Scientific American, Sept 1, 1866 helps to explain this trend.  It reads,

There is a certain unyielding rigidity in steel pens which prevents them from being universally preferred to the goose quill. . . . For [this reason] many are disinclined to use them.  The gold pen, when properly made, approaches more nearly to the qualities which have for so long a time made the goose quill the favorite as a medium of writing.  But even the best of the gold pens are by many deemed inferior to the quill, and this prejudice, or partiality, induced the manufacture of [slip] pens from quills by machinery, which were used in the same way the steel or gold pen is used, by being fastened in a holder.  Some years ago the manufacture of these quill [slip] pens was extensively prosecuted in Taunton and Boston, Mass.  They never, however, won their way to public favor.
 An article about goose quills in the December 1875 issue of Manufacturer And Builder, with the typical dismissive attitude toward all writing instruments, reports on “the making of such insignificant kinds of objects”.  It also attests to the fact that, “England especially consumes incredible quantities of this kind of pen”.  And so, the word “nib” languished in the US along with the quill slip nibs that were the source of this usage in the English language.
        Gold is an ideal substance for nibs because of its high resistance to corrosion, but it is much too soft to be used alone.  By itself, it wears away far too easily, so the only solution is to tip the gold nib with a hard substance.  Around 1804, William Hyde Wollaston and Smithson Tennant discovered the four related platinoid elements, palladium, rhodium, iridium, and osmium.  Their researches led to the discovery of an extremely hard alloy of rhodium and tin that was useful for pen points.  Bryan Donkin received his 1808 British patent no. 3,118 for a nib composed of two separate strips of gold or silver tipped with this rhodium alloy.  Wollaston made a silver nib of the two-strip type tipped with the rhodium alloy around 1822, and T. C. Robinson employed this alloy to make gold nibs on Wollaston’s pattern around 1823 or 1824.  William P. Doughty made ruby-tipped gold nibs in about 1822, and John Isaac Hawkins and Sampson Mordan got their British patent no. 4,742 to make ruby-tipped nibs in 1822.  By 1827, Mordan was advertising that he was selling “gold, silver, steel, rhodium, and ruby” nibs.  But the best solution was that of Hawkins.  As early as 1804, he was trying to find a hard material to solder to the tips of gold nibs.  In 1833, he heard of Wollaston’s researches, and he began to experiment with an alloy of iridium and osmium known as osmiridium, or iridosmine, which Wollaston and Tennant also discovered at the same time as the rhodium-alloy discovery.  Earlier, Robinson also had known of this alloy, although he rejected it as too hard to work with, but Hawkins saw this property of durability as exactly what was needed.  In 1834, he finally made his first successful gold nibs tipped with just a tiny kiss of iridium, thus making him the second “his nibs”.  Hawkins sold his business and the nib-making process to Aaron Cleveland in 1836, who passed the nib-making skills on to his brother-in-law, Simeon Hyde of New York.  Hyde taught the process to his partner Francis Mordan in England, and his workmen George Barney and Levi Brown in New York.  After Brown started up his own business, he in turn passed the skill on to his workman John Foley.
        By the 1840s, the skill had spread around the world.  Gold nibs with iridium tips were being made by Mordan in England, Benoît Mallat in France, and Levi Brown in Detroit, but it was in New York that the making of iridium-pointed gold nibs was most successful.  By 1849 there were fifteen manufacturers of such nibs in the United States, mostly in New York.  Sci. Am. reported on September 4, 1852 that, “New York is the headquarters of the manufacture [of gold nibs], and there are now perhaps no less than forty makers in this city”.   The list later included such names as Bagley, Craytey, Morton, Foley, Mabie, Todd & Bard, Holland, Hicks, Aikin-Lambert, and Fairchild.  At first, steel nibs could be used in fountain pens, but soon the gold nib caught on universally.  By the last few decades of the 1800s, the gold nib was used in almost all fountain pens, although the steel nib was still used commercially in dip pens well into the middle of the 1900s.
        At first, the fountain pen was disparaged as an unreliable writing instrument.  An article in Sci. Am., Feb 11, 1854 reads, “We have received a number of letters about fountain pens, but we do not wish to have anything to do with these—their advantages and disadvantages being well-known to us”.  But as the gold nib grew in popularity and displaced the quill and the steel nib as the writing instrument of choice, so did the fountain pen displace the penholder and the inkstand.  Articles that disparaged the quill and the steel nib to the advantage of the fountain pen and the gold nib started to appear.  An article on the process of manufacturing gold nibs in the January 1871 issue of Manufacturer And Builder reads, “The flowing illegibility of the goose quill, and the stiff precision of the steel pen, are both giving way to the virtues of the gold pen, which combines the good points of both its predecessors”.  And another article on the process of manufacturing fountain pens in the April 1892 issue reads, “Many[,] once used to a fountain pen, will never use any other, but hold on to it until the pen and owner grow old together”.  It’s “the marriage of true mindes”, or a true marriage of like minds, as also evinced by the Robert Browning verse, “Grow old along with me!  The best is yet to be”.
        The Oxford English Dictionary and an article in Sci. Am., Nov 6, 1847 record the fact that the word “stylograph” was coined around 1846, when J. C. Crossman referred to his invention of a new method of “engraving in alto-relief” with a stylus as “stylographic engraving”.  But the word “stylographic” has an earlier origin.  The O.E.D. cites an earlier usage in Ralph Wedgwood’s 1808 UK patent no. 3,110 for “an apparatus for producing several original writings or drawings at one and the same time which I call a Pennaepolygraph, or pen and stylographic manifold writer”, a pantographic device that was also incorporated into an early form of telegraph around 1815.  This is probably the source of the orthography of the word “stylograph”, but not its eventual meaning and use.  The pen in Valory’s 1848 French patent no. 7,007 is called a “Stylographe”, and although it’s not the first use of the word “stylograph”, it is the first time the name was used for a fountain pen, but ironically, one with a nib rather than a stylo point.  The first successful stylographic fountain pen was Duncan MacKinnon’s 1875 Canadian patent no. 4,809, which calls it a “Combined Pen and Ink-Holder”.  MacKinnon’s 1876 US patent no. 174,965 doesn’t call it a stylograph, yet, either.  It was still such a new idea that a separate name for it had not yet been devised.  The US patent illustration shows MacKinnon’s original conception of what a stylo should look like, more in the shape of a pencil than a fountain pen.  When the stylo was first put into production it was made to look more like the other fountain pens of the time, but it was marketed as a “Fluid Pencil”.  Strangely enough, the MacKinnon Company’s second style of stylo that came along in the 1880s reverted to a look that was closer to MacKinnon’s first conception.
        Duncan MacKinnon’s 1879 patent no. 217,888 entitled “Improvement In Stylographic Fountain-Pens” was the first US patent to use of the word “stylographic” for this type of pen.  Actually, the word was first used outside the US patent system by Charles W. Robinson to advertise the American stylos he was importing to England.  The “London dictionary word” had come back home.  An article in the Sci. Am., Apr 24, 1880 that deals with MacKinnon’s second stylo reads in part,

This pen has several advantages over its competitors, the most important of which are: The improved valve, which is operated by a weight instead of spring, making its action more reliable and rendering it less likely to get out of order.  The writing point is a circle of iridium, one of the hardest of substances known, and is perforated with a fine tapering hole, through which the ink flows in writing.  The patent for perforating iridium is controlled by the MacKinnon Pen Company, and is applied exclusively to their make of pens.
The iridium patent is John Holland’s 1881 patent no. 241,216, the object of which is “to fuse and mold iridium . . . [to] prepare the metal for my fountain-pen points”, mostly stylographic pen points.  The word “stylograph” was even popular enough, at the time, to be used for the brand name of a pad of carbon paper, James S. McDonald’s 1878 patent no. 200,145.  And Perry & Co. in Britain had a stylograph around 1879-80 that was called the “Styloidograph”.  The period from 1875 to 1885 was truly the stylographic decade.
        Throughout that decade, the stylograph patents swelled the total number of pen patents to inordinately high levels, and in the peak years of the stylograph, 1880 and 1881, the
stylograph patents outnumbered fountain pen patents by a ratio of three to one.  The word “nib”, however, appears very sparsely in the US patents and designs, and only a little more often in the trademarks.  The word makes its first appearance in Lyman & Baldwin’s patent no. 5,789 from Sept 19, 1848, the first fountain pen with a rubber sac, “a bag or chamber . . . made of india rubber”.  It goes on to say, “The nib of the pen is composed of one piece of quill with a slit, . . . and the points of the two nibs are each plated with metal”.  Le Roy W. Fairchild’s design no. 6,539 from Apr 1, 1873 is for a an old-fashioned dangling storefront sign in the shape of a nib, but the word “pen” is used throughout the specification, and “Gold Pens” is printed on the face of the nib-sign in the illustration.  [See the above illustration.]  Lewis E. Waterman’s patent no. 293,545 from Feb 12, 1884 states, “My invention relates to that class of fountain-pens in which the nib of the ordinary writing-pen is supplied with fluid ink from a barrel or reservoir. . . . Ink [is] supplied to the nib . . . by gravity and . . . capillary attraction. . . . By my invention I do away with the tubular ink-duct usually employed in connection with pens of this class, and which . . . is very liable to conduct more ink to the nib than is necessary”.   Waterman’s patent no. 307,735 from Nov 4, 1884 is essentially the same as 293,545, but the new specification has mysteriously gone back to using the word “pen” throughout, and replaced it for every instance of the word “nib” in the old specification.  Did the Patent Office force Waterman to rewrite the patent and change the word “nib” to “pen”?  In any case, coming as they did at the end of the stylographic decade, these two Waterman patents heralded the end of the hegemony of the stylograph.  Charles Livermore’s patent no. 363,526 from May 24, 1887 for “Fountain-Pens” is actually for a stylograph, but the word “stylograph” is not used anywhere in the specification.  Now we’ve come full circle in the confusion between the stylo and the fountain pen, back to where the confusion started.  The tables are turned, and we’re back to calling a stylo a fountain pen.  The Consolidated Agency Co.’s trademark no. 16,012 from Nov 20, 1888 for “Pens, Inks, And Nibs” is another early use of the word “nibs” for “pens”, or the whole pen point, and the first appearance of the word in the US trademarks.  Perry & Co.’s trademark no. 34,061 from Jan 23, 1900 for “Pen Nibs” is a rather late use of the word “nibs” in the trademarks.  The redundancy of the title is another sign that the confusion between these two words is about to be resolved, belatedly, in the US, and that the word “nib” is about to displace the word “pen” as the word of choice.  Still, it takes a British nib-making company to drive the point home.  Johan A. Alling’s trademark no. 79,883 from Oct 18, 1910 for “Pens And Nibs” is another redundant use of the word “pens”, and another late use of the word “nibs”, but only in the Trademark system.  The Patent division was well behind in this respect.  It seems almost as if the Patent and Trademark divisions of the USPTO were not talking to one another, nor looking at what the other one was doing.
        While reading through the early US patents for fountain pens, somewhere around patent no. 267,180 it struck me that the stylograph might just have been the source of the word “nib” in common American usage.  In the patents numbered 241,215, 252,034, 254,174, 266,247, 266,475, 267,180, 300,224, 302,470, 357,176, 387,450, 407,585, and 407,586, suddenly we get all this talk of “the nibs of the pen”, and the “split-pen”, and “split-nib pens”, and “slit nibs”, and the ambivalent and ambiguous “nib-pen”, and then finally just “the nib”.  All of this resulted from the reaction to the invention and proliferation of the stylographic pen.  Patent no. 302,470 for a fountain pen even goes so far as to specifically mention stylographs in the specification, and to contrast their writing style with that of fountain pens with their “slit nibs . . . which thus produce writing of the ordinary shaded character, as distinguished from the stylographic pens”.  In fact, the widespread use of the word “nib” instead of “pen” was part of a retronymic backlash that resulted from the creation of the word “stylographic pen”.  And what’s a retronym?  At first we have the word “guitar”, let’s say, and all guitars are called by that name.  But then the electric guitar is invented, and a new word is needed to refer to ordinary guitars, so the word “acoustic guitar” is created.  That’s a retronym.  Before the stylographic fountain pen, all fountain pens had pens, or nibs.  In order to distinguish between stylos and traditionally-nibbed instruments, the word “nib” had to be resurrected from obscurity.  The US Patents are full of these etymological gems, and together with the Designs and Trademarks, they constitute a great body of neglected technical literature in the English language.  It’s like the Rosetta Stone of fountain pen etymology and usage.
        Another revealing usage resulted from the name of a Thomas De La Rue fountain pen.  As part of the backlash against the stylograph, an 1883 US ad for the pen shows that it was called “The Anti-Stylograph”.  It cites the 1882 US patent no. 252,034, which is the US equivalent of British patent no. 1,419 in 1881, and it also claims that the pen is, “A self-feeding reservoir pen [that] writes continuously . . . by means of a pen with ordinary nibs”.  It could have been outfitted with either a “Non-Corrodible Pen”, or a “Palladium Pen (Iridium-Pointed).  Flexible as Steel, durable as Gold”.  The retronym “anti-stylograph” had a brief life in the 1880s as a synonym for “fountain pen” before it fell into disuse.  A male character in a short story in Littell’s Living Age, Nov 22, 1884 says, “Have you seen anywhere my anti-stylograph pen-filler?  I have mislaid or lost it.  You know what I mean—that apparatus for injecting into it its supply of ink”.  He meant an “eyedropper”, but the word was just being invented.  The term “nibbed pen” comes full circle in the title of a new column in the April 2002 issue of the online magazine Stylophiles.  The column is called “Nibless Pens” and is said to be concerned with “the wide world of nibless writing instruments”.  Well, this should have happened back in the stylographic decade.  Rather than the fountain pen being called an anti-stylograph, or a nibbed pen, it should have been the stylograph that was called an anti-fountain pen, or a nibless pen.  Then there wouldn’t have been any need for this retronym.  But it was, after all, the stylographic decade, and so instead we got the word “anti-stylograph”, which thankfully had a short life, but also the word “nib”, which caught on and stuck around for a while.
        Mark Twain writes pseudonymously about his own family in the 1882 sketch The McWilliamses And The Burglar Alarm.  The McWilliams name was Twain’s pen name, or fictional name for Clemens, thus creating a double pseudonym, or a pseudonym within a pseudonym.  In that sketch, he praises the stylograph, implying that it could write forever without dipping.  In his personal letters to his friends, Twain at first urges them to also take up the stylo, “the best fountain pen yet invented”.  But soon his patience with it is worn thin, and he writes, “You see I am trying a new pen.  I stood the stylograph as long as I could, and then retired [it]”.  And also, “It takes a royal amount of cussing to make the thing go the first few days”.  In his 1891 book Over The Teacups, Oliver Wendell Holmes at first criticizes the stylograph for being “prosaic” because “it deprives the handwriting of its beauty, and . . . its individual character”.  So does that make the fountain pen poetic?  But he then goes on to praise the stylo for not interrupting “the fine flow of thought”, since it no longer had to take “short, laborious journeys . . . to drink every few minutes” at the inkstand.  It wasn’t long, however, before the fountain pen was perfected and started to take back its rightful prominence, but only after it had been shamed for a decade.  More evidence of the stylo backlash can be seen in an ad from 1888 for “Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen”.  The author of an endorsement of the Waterman pen gives a backhanded slur to the stylograph.  He writes,

Your “Ideal” Fountain Pen is pretty nearly my ideal also.  When I first mastered the worst of the deviltries of the stylographic pen, I thought I was on the high-road to comfort in writing, but I was always liable to make my fingers black and the air blue when I used that machine.  Your pen is very perfect; [and] good for the morals.
Later on, but this time writing under his real name, Clemens also calls the Conklin Crescent Pen an anti-swearing pen, but for other reasons.  In a 1903 advertisement for the pen, his letter endorsing the pen calls it a “profanity saver” because the crescent filler stops the pen from rolling off the desk.  In that sense, the crescent is like an erection.  It’s as if the pen is on the little, jagged, blue pill, which also stops old men from rolling out of bed.
        At first, the US patents seemed like a lexical Rosetta Stone, until I saw how the Patent Office bureaucracy imposed its will on the word “nib”, and on the other terminology concerning writing instruments.  In spite of its brief surge in the 1880s, the word “nib” did not catch on right away in the US patents, and did not supersede the word “pen” generally until well into the 1910s.  The Patent Office imposed its will against the preference of the public, and against the way that popular language and usage were evolving.  Another example is the Patent Office’s insistence upon the use of lots of hyphenated compound words, and the early US patents are full of them.  Perhaps it was just a sign of the times.  The earliest use of the word “fountain pen” in the US patents dates to 1830 and shows that the word was not hyphenated.  But in the mid-19th century, they started hyphenating both compound adjectives and compound nouns, and with a vengeance.  It was not until the 20th century that compound nouns, belatedly, were no longer hyphenated, and the word “fountain pen” in the US patents lost its hyphen only as late as the 1920s.  Previous to 1908, the index to Scientific American magazine, published in the last issue of any particular volume, always indexed fountain pens as “pens, fountain”, a noun followed by its subordinate adjective.  But the index on p.481 of the Dec 26, 1908 issue finally listed them as “fountain pen”.  It finally became a compound noun instead of just a noun preceded by an adjective.  Usually a new compound noun starts off hyphenated, as in the words “under-feed” and “fountain-pen”, but if it sticks around long enough and catches on, it’s a sure thing that a compound noun either becomes a single word, as happened with the word “underfeed”, or else a compound noun without hyphens, as happened with “fountain pen”
.  The frilly hyphen only serves to fluff up the language.  Finally, now, we’re free of the fluffing hyphen.
        The word “nib”, meaning the whole penpoint, already existed, but only in the UK, and only as an obscure usage.  It’s first use was recorded in the UK as early as 1809, when the first quill slip nibs were patented in England, and it also came to be used in the UK advertisements in the 1830s for the first metal slip nibs.  In the UK and Canada and its other colonies, the word “nib” was adopted early in the 1800s.  But here’s an example, and it’s quite a late one, of the American resistance to the word “nib”, titled “What Is A Pen?”.  It’s from The American Stationer, Aug 31, 1912, p.30, which I mentioned in another
post in this blog.  It gives the disapproving American perspective on what was happening in Canada and the UK.  It talks about using the word “pen”
for the whole writing instrument, the way we sometimes now call a fountain pen just a pen.  It complains that pupils in public schools and high schools in Canada use the word “pen” for a “penholder”, and the word “nib” for what used to be called a “pen”.  It also quotes a Webster’s dictionary definition of “nib” as “a short pen adapted for insertion in a penholder”, giving some justification for calling a pen a “nib”, but says that these are not “the proper names” of these everyday articles.
        However, it took a type of writing instrument that was a rival to the ordinary, nibbed fountain pen, and a retronymic usage created in response to this rival, to bring the word “nib” into greater prominence and general usage in the US.  The quill slip nib didn’t catch on in the US at first, and neither did the word “nib”, but the stylograph did catch on, and it helped to finally cinch the deal for the word “nib” in the US.  From then on, the word “pen” would come to stand for the whole writing instrument.  The stylo provided the impetus for a more precise usage, in that the word “nib” came into resurgence out of the backlash against the stylo.  Without the MacKinnon stylo, the word “nib” may not have caught on generally.  To return the irony and complete the circle, it was the MacKinnon stylograph that gave us the word “nib”.

George Kovalenko.

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