As you guys probably know and I’ve discovered…

The title page of Paradise Lost

As you guys probably know, and I’ve discovered over the years (this was never mentioned anywhere in my 17 years of schooling), people used to write the letter “s” really funny. In particular, an “s” that didn’t appear at the beginning or end of a word looked… like an “f”. There were actually a few years of my life where I wondered why it was called the “Congrefs” of the United States and when the name was changed.

At any rate, obviously, there was a demographic and typographic shift away from this notation and to the much more sane, uniform system where all lower-case “s” characters are written the same regardless of where they come in the sentence. What I didn’t realize was how sudden and fast the transition was.

Wikipedia doesn’t seem to have any guess as to what caused the fall from favor for the long s1, but it does note a few milestones in the transition, including the United States Congress switching to using the short s in 1804. But what is really interesting about the changeover is how the entirety of the English language pivoted from the old to new style over the course of 15 short years.

Graph of the use of the long vs short s

To put a little context on that, Google is 15 years old. In that time, Google went from a startup to ubiquitous in a world where you can send a message across the Atlantic ocean in a two tenths of a second instead of two months. For this kind of change to happen in literature in the 1800s is just amazing.

I do wonder, though, if for 20 or 30 years afterward, some people paid extra for books printed with the long s because they had a warmer tone.

1. I have a baseless but gut feeling that the change came due to the printing press and the hassle of having to keep a third type of “s” around.