April 01, 2015

A Gloss on the Word ‘Pen’

  , and the hyphenated word “fountain-pen”.

        First of all, let’s gloss the word “gloss”.  What is a gloss?  And what is it to gloss something?  The word “gloss”, pronounced “glaws”, has its origins ca.1250-1300 in the Middle English word “glose”, from the Old French word “glose”, from the Medieval Latin word “glosa”, which all come from the Greek word “glossa”, literally “language”, or “tongue”.  The word today is used to stand for the explanation, or translation, or annotation, by means of marginal or interlinear notes, of a technical or unusual expression in a text, or to insert glosses on a word into a text, or to annotate a word, or text, or a whole book.  And a glossary is a series of such verbal interpretations of a text.  Some closely related synonyms include such words as “comment”, “annotation”, “commentary”, “critique”, “exegesis”, “explication”, “explanation”, “interpretation”, and “analysis”.  Most of this 
is taken from, which is based upon the Random House Unabridged Dictionary.  But the word “pen” is the subject of this piece, so let’s play with the word glancingly, glossingly.
        The word “pen” comes from “penna”, the Latin word for “feather”, or “quill”, so the use of the word to refer to a writing instrument dates from the period after quill pens were first used, 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 hollow reed, or “calamus” in Greek.  Bramah’s UK patent no. 3,260 from 1809 for quill slip nibs still called them “pens” in the patent, but they were called “nibs” on the sales packages of the day.  Johnston’s UK patent no. 5,392 from 1826 for a fountain pen is one of the first uses of the word “nib” in a patent, but that word is another story.
        The first metallic nib in the US patents was Williamson’s patent no. X1,168 from 1809.  Thomas Jefferson owned several of these nibs, and wrote endorsements that were used by the inventor in his advertisements for the nibs.  The title, “Metal Writing Pen”, uses a word, “writing pen”, that had to be created as a retronym, or backronym, to distinguish the word “pen”, meaning the nib, from a pen for holding animals, or “animal pen”.  And what’s a retronym?  At first we had the word “guitar”, and all guitars were called by that name.  But then electric guitars were invented, and a new word was needed to distinguish them from ordinary guitars, so the word “acoustic guitar” was created.  That’s a retronym.
        Gould’s patent no. X6,127 from 1830 for a “a pen for writing with ink, called the Perennial or Self-supplying Fountain Pen” is one of the few early instances in the US patents where the word is not hyphenated anywhere in the patent.  As expected, the nib is still called a “pen”, but the whole instrument is also called a “pen”, and the word “fountain pen” is not hyphenated throughout.  Get set for lots of hyphenated compound words in the US patents because they are full of them.  At first, the words “fountain pen” were considered, not as a compound noun, but as a noun preceded by an adjective.  Therefore, when the words were listed in an index, they were listed under the letter “P” and took the form “pen, fountain”.  It wasn’t until the Dec 26, 1908 index listing in The Scientific American that the words were finally treated as a compound noun, and were listed under the letter “F” as “fountain pen”.  In the 19th century, they hyphenated both compound adjectives and compound nouns, and it was not until the 20th century that compound nouns were liberated from the hyphen.  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 “underfeed”, or else a compound noun without hyphens, as happened with “fountain pen”.  The frilly hyphen only serves to fluff up the language.
        Bartlett’s patent no. 3,253 from 1843 for a “Fountain-Pen” is the first US fountain pen for which an image survives on the US patents.  In all the US patents for fountain pens, right from the start the word “Fountain Pen” was always spelt without a hyphen in the titles on all the illustration sheets, although starting with this patent, a hyphen was always used in the official titles.
        Lyman & Baldwin’s patent no. 5,789 from 1848 for “Fountain-Pen Holders And Nibs” is the first fountain pen with a rubber sac, “a bag or chamber . . . made of india rubber”, but used to prime the nib with ink when required, not a capillary-fed pen.  The pen is a finger-press filler, but it can also be filled with the “elastic pump” eyedropper in Fig. 9, which looks like a balloon on a wand.  It wasn’t so much an eyedropper as it was a syringe, or injector, or turkey baster.  Both the word “nib” and the word “pen” are pressed into doing double duty.  With this patent, the word “nib” makes its first appearance in the US patents in reference to a pen point, both in its singular and plural forms, standing for the whole pen point, or for the two tips, or split tynes of a pen point.  Later, the word “nibs” would be forgotten and permanently shortened to the singular form and stand for the whole pen point, or “pen”.  And once the word “pen” had been relieved of its extra duty, that is, standing for the nib, it would be free to stand for the whole writing instrument.  “The handle of the penholder is a hollow metal cylinder with the lower end provided with a nib”, “When the pen is not in use, a cap-tube is slipped over the pen”, “hence the pen may be carried with safety in the pocket”.  The nib was made of quill tipped with metal, “whereby the durability of the metal for the point is combined with the elasticity of the quill-nib”, “The nib of the pen is composed of one piece of quill with a slit, or two pieces, properly secured in a holder, and the points of the two nibs are each plated with metal”.  It takes quite a bit of mental gymnastics to keep all the words straight in one’s head!
        Sawyer’s patent no. 6,474 from 1849 for “Scythe-Nibs” is not a patent for pens, but it’s an interesting early use of the word “nib” in the US patents, and it helps to show the meaning of the word as “protruding point”.  It’s actually a patent for a “thole”, a mechanism used to attach the scythe handles, or projecting hand grips, or “hafts”, to the scythe pole, or “snath”, but the claim reads in part, inexplicably, “for fastening the nib upon the snath”.  The haft and thole together, apparently, comprised the nib.
        Craytey’s patent no. 15,223 from 1856 is called a “Fountain Pen” on the drawing, but it’s really only a reservoir tip for a nib.  There is much confusion in the early patents between true fountain pens and mere reservoir nibs.  The confusion between the two will have to wait for resolution until the word “nib” comes into general usage, and then the distinction between the words “fountain” and “reservoir”, as in the “fountain” of ink in a fountain pen, and a “reservoir” of ink in a reservoir nib, will be eradicated.  The patent systems of the various countries served the unwitting purpose of standardizing word usage, well, at least in the area of technical language.
        Pattison’s Canadian patent no. 1,008 from 1859 for “An improved Fountain Pen-holder tube, called the Canadian Fountain Pen Holder” is the first fountain pen patented in Canada, and a Canadian pen at that.  As this and every subsequent Canadian patent shows, the word “fountain pen” was never hyphenated in the Canadian patents, right from the start.  MacKinnon’s Canadian patent no. 4,809 from 1875 is for his stylograph, but it is called a “Combined Pen And Ink Holder Or Reservoir” in the specifications.  On the
cover of the patent file is the single title-word “Pen”, but it was altered at some later date by the addition of the word “Fountain”, partially written with a different pen, and the rest of it written in pencil.  And by the way, Might & Taylor’s Canadian patent no. 7,617 of 1877 is the first one to show an illustration of an eyedropper for filling the pen.
        Downes’s US design no. 11,065 from 1879, and patent no. 225,214 from 1880 for charm pencil cases both show a curious use of the word “nib” for pencils.  In the title of the design, and in the following phrases, “when the pencil-nib G and barrel F are exposed”, and “a pencil-case consisting of the shank A, stock B, arms C, and flukes D, barrel F, nib G”, and “the short tubular part D, through which the stem of the pencil-nib h passes”, the word “nib” makes its first appearance in the US designs and patents, but in reference to a pencil case, of all things.  The word “pencil-nib” was a localized use by Downes only, and one that didn’t catch on among other pencil-case makers.  The words “neb” and “nib” really just mean a point, or tip, or nub of any type.  Only later did “nib” come to mean “pen” exclusively, whether a quill, or steel, or gold, or silver, or palladium nib in a fountain pen, or a penholder.
        The title of Stewart’s Canadian patent no. 16,562 from 1883, “Improvements on Fountain-Pen Holders”, is the only time the word “Fountain-Pen” is hyphenated in the Canadian patents, and that’s only because in this case it is used as a compound adjective of the word “Holders”, and also because the patentee is American.  In the title of Stewart’s Canadian patent no. 12,356 from 1881, “Improvements on Fountain Pen-Holders”, “Fountain” is not hyphenated onto “Pen-Holders” because in this case “Pen-Holders” is used as a compound noun, and “Fountain” is only an adjective.
        Rightmyer’s patent no. 223,388 from 1880 for a nib is the first US patent to use the word “Pen” alone in the title.  But Carr’s patent no. 288,010 from 1883 for a fountain pen is the first use in the US patents of the word “pen” to mean the whole writing instrument.  In its own words, it is “an improvement in the class of pens whose shaft or handle becomes an ink-reservoir, which communicates with the pen proper or nib”, to “deliver ink against the concave surface of the nib”, and “the pen is filled by simply pouring ink into the reservoir”.  This use of the word “pen” also shows that it originates as a synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part of something is made to stand for the whole thing.  But this origin was quickly forgotten and taken for granted with frequent repetition and facile usage.
        In the words of Lapham’s patent no. 376,778 from 1888 for his “Lapham’s Rival”, “In fountain-pens as heretofore made and put on the market the feeding of the ink to the pen proper or penpoint has been so imperfect or uncertain as to cause ‘skipping’ or failure of the pen to mark, especially during the first strokes of its use”, the word “pen proper” had to be created as a retronym to distinguish the word “pen”, meaning the nib, or pen point, from the word “pen”, meaning the whole writing instrument.  In Parker’s patent no. 423,804 from 1890, “the object being to provide a steady and even flow of ink to the pen, and to this end to construct a pen of few parts”, we have the two senses of the word “pen” together in the same sentence.
        Chamberlain’s patent no. 448,933 from 1891 is the first use of the word “pen-nib” in the title of a US patent.  It also goes on to say, “a penholder barrel being specially adapted to eject the pen-nib”, “the upper portion of the nib is pressed against the shank of the button”, and “when it is desired to eject the nib, the button may be forced downwardly and the nib ejected”.  The inventor was a Canadian, and in the United Kingdom and its colonies at the time the word “nib” caught on much sooner than in the United States.
        In Brown’s patent no. 490,862 from 1893, there is no hyphen in the word “fountain pen” anywhere in this patent except in the title in the specifications, but that’s as close as the US patents get to this modernizing trend in the English language.  From January 1893 to December 1895, the hyphen is dropped in this way, but then the institutional language of the Patent Office is re-instated with a firm hand, and the hyphen is used invariably throughout the specifications of fountain pen patents up to 1907.  The hyphen is used in the title even as late as the 1920s!  In stark contrast, The Canadian Patent Office had never used a hyphen in the word “fountain pen” right from the start, as far back as 1859.  To the credit of the illustrators, however, from the evidence of the earliest surviving US patent drawings, the fountain pen patents almost never use a hyphen in the title on the illustration sheets, except on the rarest occasion.
        In Cushing’s patent no. 533,350 from 1895, the word “fountain pen” appears in the specifications sometimes with and sometimes without hyphens, but after this patent it stabilizes again to no hyphens except in the title.  Farwell’s patent no. 540,017 from 1895 is one of the few times until the 1920s that the word “Fountain Pen” is unhyphenated in the title, although it is hyphenated part of the time in the specifications.  Starting with Veit’s patent no. 552,679 from 1896, the word “fountain-pen” is hyphenated throughout the specifications, and it remains like this until the 1920s.
        Weidlich’s patent no. 556,522 from 1896 calls the underfeed a “tongue”.  “This tongue projects through and beyond the mouth [of the tube] and curves upwardly to the tip [nib].  Whether the tongue shall be so seated in the mouth as to carry this upward curve past the lip of the mouth or away from the lip is a matter of pleasure, for whether the mouth is above the tongue or the tongue above the mouth when the whole pen is assembled and in operation makes no material difference in results”.  This sounds really sexual, but it’s an exact transcript of p. 2, lines 16-25 of the specifications.  By the way, don’t forget to put a space between the word “pen” and the word “is” in the last sentence in the quote.  I think he’s talking about the swerve of the curve, which has nothing to do with the angle of the dangle.
        Here’s a passage from Grass’s patent no. 662,357 from 1900.  “Among the defects of many existing fountain-pens is that the flow of ink too often becomes scanty, and it is not possible with them to make the same heavy ink-charged strokes upon paper which can be made with an ordinary nib supplied by dipping into an ordinary ink-well.  In many fountain-pens, moreover, the ink is at times apt to accumulate and drop from the pen, so as to make blots.  While the above-named scantiness is not a bar to the use of the ordinary fountain-pen, so long as it does not get out of order, yet the supply of ink to the nib being so small, this feature detracts from the comfortable use of such pens in many hands”.  Not only does he use the word “nib” throughout the specifications, but he also uses the word “pen” to mean the whole instrument.  The inventor was from Australia, and the use of the word “nib” in the UK and its colonies at the time, including Canada, was way ahead of its use in the US, at least in the US patents.  This may have been because of the greater popularity of the stylographic pen in the UK, and their need to distinguish between stylos and nibbed fountain pens.
        Crocker’s patent no. 703,641 from 1902 is for a penholder that “allows the nib or pen to be easily removed”.  Finally, the word “nib” is used, even though the word “pen” is still there, but the word “nib” precedes the word “pen”.  Still, it takes an inventor from England to use it.
        In Perks &  Thacker’s patent no. 723,726 from 1903, they say, “This invention has relation to fountain or reservoir pens, and has as its object to provide such pens with efficient and self-contained means for filling or charging the ink reservoir without it being necessary to first remove or detach the nib-plug or nib-holder from the body of the pen”, “Fig. 1 [shows] the several parts in the position they assume when the pen is in use”.  The word “nib” is used throughout for the point, and the word “pen” is used to refer to the whole instrument.  That phrase, “when the pen is in use”, reveals the whole history and evolution of the word “pen”, first as the pen-point, and then later as the whole instrument.  At one time, that phrase meant that the pen-point specifically, uncapped and exposed, was in use.  And now, it simply means that the whole instrument is being used.  This is the figurative origin of the word.  It’s a synecdoche, and the part stands for the whole.  Norman’s patent no. 762,837 from 1904 for a double-ended, reversible nib, is called a “pen or nib” throughout the specifications.  Finally the word “nib” is used by an American inventor.
        Hodges’s patent no. 786,967 from 1905 calls the whole fountain pen a pen.  “It will be noted that the parts of my pen are few in number and of simple construction”.  But in his patent no. 792,898 from 1905, Hodges says, “The point end of the pen is dipped into a supply of ink”.  Although he uses the word “pen” for the whole instrument, he also uses the word for the nib as well.  And then in his patent no. 792,988 from 1905, Hodges says, “The nib is submerged in ink”.  He uses the word “nib” throughout, and the word “pen” for the whole instrument.  Within three patents he has achieved modern language usage.
        Williams’s patent no. 800,039 from 1905 uses the phrase “the body or barrel of the pen” in the specifications, thus showing that the word “pen” was becoming the standard word in the industry for the whole instrument.  In Blair’s patent no. 805,624 from 1905, the word “nib” is used throughout, as more and more people start to use the word in their US patents.  De La Rue’s patent no. 814,805 from 1906 says, “the head of the [piston] rod is so formed as to act as a valve to shut off the supply of ink to the nib when the pen is out of use”.  The words “nib” and “pen” are used throughout, but by a British inventor.  Brown’s patent no. 819,719 from 1906 and patent no. 846,547 from 1907 are both by a Canadian inventor who uses the words “pen proper” and “nib”.  Hall’s patent no. 823,328 from 1906 is a drafting pen with two blades, “the nibs of the pen”.  In this instance, and in all pens of this type in general, the word “nibs” is justifiably plural.
        Brenton’s patent no. 853,156 from 1907 is called a “Fountain-Pen”, but it’s actually a ballpoint pen for “marking goods and packing cases”.  That’s about all ballpoint pens are good for.  Starting with this entry, the word “fountain pen” is unhyphenated throughout the specifications, except for the title where it remains hyphenated for another decade and a half.  Things stay like this, with the odd exception where the hyphen makes a brief reappearance, until the hyphen finally disappears completely in the early 1920s.  It crept out through the back door, that is, through the “Claims” section at the end, then vanished from the rest of the specifications, and then, at last, out through the front door in the title.  Is this a slackening of the reins by the US Patent Office over the language in the patents?  Finally, slowly the Patent Office came to its senses and followed everyday language usage.
        In Catlin’s patent no. 894,368 from 1908 for a “Nib-Ejecting Penholder”, we have the word “nib” from an American, but he’s from New York, and that’s practically a foreign country.  Rentz’s patent no. 896,576 from 1908 is called simply a “Pen”, but actually the whole writing instrument, and not just the nib, is meant by the single word “Pen” in the title.  Finally the Patent Office is beginning to acknowledge the changes in the language.
        Wertheimer’s pat. no. 903,249 from 1908 is called a “Pen-Nib”.  Now, if this title isn’t crying out for a name change, then what is?  Finally the language of England and its Commonwealth confronted its American cousin.  By this time, the word “nib” had displaced “pen” in the UK and Canada and Australia, but in the US, in the Patent system at least, the word “pen” still prevailed.  Being from England, the patentee wanted to use the word “Nib” for the title, but the US Patent Office insistence upon the word “Pen” resulted in the bastardized, redundant, hybrid term “Pen-Nib”, the compromise they settled upon.  Even so, he uses the word “writing pens” once, a retronym required to distinguish it from “animal pen”.  Otherwise, he uses “nibs” throughout.  It was a “quadruple nib”, four nibs stamped out together in a cross-shaped blank, joined at the stems.  They were broken off as required and inserted into a penholder.  The nibs could all be the same, or they could be of mixed types, some with “a sharp point and the other blunt”.  This also helps to clarify the distinction between “stub point” and “long point”.
        Cameron’s patent no. 940,509 from 1909 for a “Fountain-Pen Nib” is the first use in the US patents of the word “Nib” alone and unhyphenated in the title and throughout the specifications, but again from a British inventor.  Robertson’s patent no. 953,438 from 1910 uses the word “nib” throughout. In Schnapka’s patent no. 975,465 from 1910 we have the first penlight pen, “provided with means for illuminating the nib to write in the dark”, also the word “nib” used by an inventor from Germany.  In Moore’s patent no. 1,346,045 from 1920, there is no hyphen in “fountain pen” anywhere in the specifications, but the title doesn’t use the word.  And starting with Houser’s patent no. 1,402,164 from 1922, the hyphen finally disappeared from compound nouns in the titles.
        Finally, free of the frilly, fluffing hyphen!  Actually, I wanted to use a different f-word there.

George Kovalenko.