Of Fonts and Fears

By | November 13, 2015

After glancing at the calendar this morning, I decided that for the rest of the day, I’m going to set everything I type in 13-point Helvetica. Why? It’s a long story, as I imagine you have come to expect by now, that takes us through Medieval Switzerland and the world of opera.

Helvetica is one of the most famous typefaces in the world. Designed in 1957 by Swiss type designer Max Miedinger, with a little help from Eduard Hoffmann, it was intended to be a neutral typeface suitable for a wide variety of signage. It was originally named Neue Haas Grotesk, and Mergenthaler Linotype licensed it almost immediately. However, they (actually German Linotype in particular) didn’t like the name, and one could hardly blame them. Heinz Eul, a sales manager at D. Stempel AG—a type foundry that made matrices for the Linotype—suggested calling it Helvetia, which means “Switzerland” in Latin, as a tribute to the nationality of its designer. Unfortunately, the name Helvetia was not a unique one; a sewing machine and an insurance company, for example, were also named Helvetia. So Eduard Hoffmann went through his Latin cases and declensions and suggested “Helvetica,” as Switzerland is called, in Latin, Confoederatio Helvetica.

Helvetia is also the name of the female figure that serves as the national personification of Switzerland, and the name derives from the Helvetii, a marauding tribe of typesetters— No, sorry, check that…. The Helvetii were a Gaulish tribe that lived in the region now known as Switzerland around the time of the Roman Empire (they had a run-in with Julius Caesar, which many people did around that time). In the Middle Ages, an Old Swiss Confederacy emerged that consisted of a loose affiliation of cantons that survived until the late 18th century, when France invaded the region and created, for a brief time (1798–1803), the Helvetic Republic.

The “mascot” of the Helvetic Republic was a Swiss folk hero named William Tell, who was said to have lived during the 14th century. An expert marksman, he was adept at the crossbow, and in perhaps the most famous episode in Tell’s story, he was commanded to shoot an apple off the head of the son of Albrecht Gessler, a tyrannical Austrian reeve assigned to Tell’s canton (called, as any crossword puzzle fan can tell you, Uri). In the folklore, Tell eventually (spoiler alert) assassinates Gessler, and has thus been revered as a conqueror of tyrants, especially by the French during the period of the Helvetic Republic.

William Tell was the subject of an 1804 play by Friedrich Schiller. A historian by trade, Schiller had never actually been to Switzerland, but his wife Lotte was Swiss and was thus very familiar with the story, and Schiller also drew upon other historical and folkloric sources. The play was first staged on March 17, 1804, under the direction of Johann Wolfgang Goethe (of Faust fame), who was a good friend of Schiller’s. It was a hit, and has been translated into many languages.

One of those languages was French, which was the version that composer Gioachino Rossini used to write his opera Guillaume Tell. (It used to be said that you could tell that someone was an intellectual if they could listen to “The William Tell Overture” and not think of the Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger was a bit before my time, but in my day, you could tell an intellectual if they could listen to “The Barber of Seville” without thinking of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, which I am unable to do. Either way, both pieces of music were composed by Rossini. He had a flair.)

Guillaume Tell was first performed by the Paris Opéra on August 3, 1829, and one of the problems was that it was long—four hours long. Its immense cast and very high tenor part have also made it a very difficult opera to stage in its entirety. Guillaume Tell was Rossini’s last opera, although he would live another 40 years.

Rossini (1792–1868) was born in Pesaro, Italy, and his father was—get this—a horn player and an inspector of slaughterhouses. I suspect one was his day job, the other what he moonlighted as, but one doesn’t want to jump to conclusions as to which was which. His mother was a singer, and his parents were often away playing and singing in various orchestras and theaters around Italy. Young Gioachino learned to play the harpsichord from a narcoleptic beer seller named Prinetti, and although apprenticed to a blacksmith, Rossini continued to learn and write music (his earliest scores date from age 12, and showed the influence of Haydn and Mozart), and he later enrolled at the Liceo Musicale in Bologna. After graduation, he landed a commission by the Venetian Teatro San Moise to compose La cambiale di matrimonio, a one-act comedy. And his career was off to the races. He would go on to compose 39 operas—in his lifetime he was the most successful opera composer of all time—as well as a smattering of sacred music, chamber music, and songs. He once joked “Give me the laundress’ bill and I will even set that to music” (Montanelli, 1972).

In 1869, a year after Rossini’s death on Friday, November 13, 1868, British journalist Henry Sutherland Edwards wrote a biography of Rossini that included this passage:

He [Rossini] was surrounded to the last by admiring friends; and if it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that on Friday 13th of November he passed away (Edwards, 1869).

This is one of the first documented references to “Friday the 13th” in English, although the “fear” of this particular day and date is believed to date from the Middle Ages. The number 13 was said to be unlucky—because of the 13 people at the Last Supper—and Friday was also unlucky—Jesus was crucified on a Friday—but it seems that no one ever put them together into one mega-fear until the 19th century.

Different countries and cultures have their own unlucky days. In some Spanish and Greek countries, Tuesday the 13th is a bad one, and in Italy Friday the 17th is especially inauspicious. (And Richard Benjamin had the bad luck to have starred in the staggeringly unfunny spoof Saturday the 14th.)

We all know that the fear of the number 13 is called “triskaidekaphobia,” but the fear of Friday the 13th is called “paraskevidekatriaphobia,” from the Greek Paraskeví (Παρασκευή, “Friday”) and dekatreís (δεκατρείς, “thirteen”). If you do suffer from this fear, you’re—well—out of luck: it has been worked out that Friday is actually the most common weekday on which the 13th of a month can fall.

One wonders, though: is there a word for the fear of the typeface Helvetica? Helveticaphobia? I hope not; like Friday the 13th, we should have nothing to fear from Helvetica. Fear of Comic Sans, though, is perfectly rational.

At any rate, The Digital Nirvana wishes you a happy and fear-free Friday the 13th.



“Gioachino Rossini,” All Music, http://www.allmusic.com/artist/gioachino-rossini-mn0000678420/biography.

Henry Sutherland Edwards, The Life of Rossini, Blackett, 1869, p. 340, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/45705/45705-h/45705-h.htm#page_332.

Indro Montanelli, L’Italia giacobina e carbonara (1789–1831), Milan: Rizzoli, 1972, p. 612.

Paul Shaw, “From the Archives no. 26—Helvetica and Univers addendum,” Paul Shaw Letter Design, December 1, 2011, http://www.paulshawletterdesign.com/2011/12/from-the-archives-no-26—helvetica-and-univers-addendum.

“Triskaidekaphobia,” Wolfram Mathworld, http://mathworld.wolfram.com/Triskaidekaphobia.html.

“Friday the 13th,” Wikipedia, last modified on October 31, 2015, retrieved November 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Friday_the_13th.

“Gioachino Rossini,” Wikipedia, last modified on October 25, 2015, retrieved November 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gioachino_Rossini.

“Helvetica,” Wikipedia, last modified on November 1, 2015, retrieved November 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helvetica.

“Helvetia,” Wikipedia, last modified on November 2, 2015, retrieved November 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helvetia.

“William Tell (opera),” Wikipedia, last modified on November 4, 2015, retrieved November 9, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Tell_(opera).



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One thought on “Of Fonts and Fears

  1. Linda McDaniel

    Thank you. Your post made me laugh and lightened a gray rainy day. But I noticed that your post was not actually set in Helvetica, at least not as displayed in my browser. I really like the idea of marauding tribes of typesetters.

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