November 30, 2014

The Word ‘Nib’

Canada and the UK 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”.  It’s from The American Stationer, Aug 31, 1912, p.30.  It also talks about using the word “pen” for the whole writing instrument, the way we sometimes now call a fountain pen just a pen.

      “WHAT IS A PEN?
      “Pupils from public schools, both town and country, and also from the high school go into bookstores and ask for a “pen”, and almost invariably they want what we were taught to call a “penholder”, says the Newmarket Herald (Canada).  And when they want what we were taught to call a “pen”, they ask for a “nib”.
      “We almost began to suspect that possibly we did not know the names of these familiar articles, so we had recourse to Webster’s unabridged dictionary.  We find the following definition given for “pen”:  “An instrument used for writing with ink, formerly made of a reed, or of the quill of a goose or other bird, but now also of other materials, as of steel, gold, etc”.  The definition for “penholder” is: “A handle for a pen”.
      “The third definition given of “nib”, is “The points of a pen; also the pointed part of a pen; a short pen adapted for insertion in a holder”.  This may be some justification for calling a pen a “nib,” but we find no authority whatever for calling a penholder a “pen”.  In the catalogues of wholesale houses penholders are called “penholders” and not “pens,” and pens are called “pens” and not “nibs”.  It would be well for teachers to instruct their pupils in the proper names of these everyday articles.”

George Kovalenko.


More to come