Don’t Coffin Me, It’s Crackers

Listening to the wonderful No Such Thing as a Fish podcast this morning, made by the researchers (“elves”) of UK panel show QI, they brought up a problem with a joke included with Christmas crackers. Crackers are a British tradition — nothing to do with biscuits, cookies, or the like, but more like a three-segmented Thanksgiving turkey wishbone. Wrapped in paper, two people each pull one end, and it pops open with a slight bang, and the person with the middle segment gets the usually minor prize inside. There are also jokes. (Or “jokes.” They are not good jokes, intentionally, as the elves explain on their podcast.)

Photo by Thomas Cizauskas

The QI elves described a joke that asks, “What kind of cough medicine does Dracula take?” The answer printed in crackers the last few years has been, “Con medicine.” Nobody reading that answer knows what it means. Seems like a misfire, even for the sub-dadjoke nature of Christmas crackers.

From a 2016 Armando Iannucci tweet

Turns out that it’s one of my favorite subjects: ligatures. Typographic ligatures are the drawn combination of multiple letters to form a better fit and avoid awkward intersections. The ff, fi, ffi, and ffl combinations are most common, as the kern, or overhang, of the f bumps horribly in both Roman/upright and italic/oblique faces. (That kern used to literally overhang metal type, making ligatures necessary to avoid breaking type.) You probably have also seen the æ and œ ligatures, which come from Latin and are still sometimes used in lieu of ae and oe in UK English spellings of certain words, as in manœuver or encyclpædia.

An overhanging f metal letter via James Mosley’s blog entry on “Type held in the hand”
Look at that kern! Via James Mosley’s blog entry on “Type held in the hand

A drawn version of those letter combinations that joins the letters together (in serif faces) or redraws and spaces them correctly (in some sans serif and decorative faces) solves the problem.

As the Fish people tell it, the answer to the cracker joke was supposed to be “coffin” medicine. But in the original typing of it, “coffin” has the ffi replaced with the ligature ffi (as it is in this line now twice; try to select it). That would be fine…except in the text-encoding conversion from source to joke-printing machine, the ligature doesn’t exist in the printed typeface. Often, that results in a piece of tofu, as it’s sometimes known: the rectangular upright box that substitutes for missing characters. In the joke-printing machine, it just omits a character altogether, and must not have been seen or noticed in its final form.

Several ligatures, including the historic and largely archaic sh and ct ligatures.

Ligatures date back to the origin of mass reproducible printing with types, likely in Gutenberg’s atelier in Mainz, Germany. Gutenberg set a number of impossible tasks in front of himself and his workers, and his Bible is proof he conquered all of them. This included not just creating a rapid way of casting type in metal to produce letters needed in such abundance, but also to simulate the appearance of scribes’ hands as closely as possible, so as not to jar readers with something that seemed too new.

One of his choices was to set the type fully justified, or flush in a vertical line at the left and right margins (although there are some subtle overhangs, common in modern typography, too). While he clearly had spacing material that let him spread letters out a bit to fill out lines, the lines are so dark and tight that he chose an aesthetic solution that added a vast amount of work. Imagine inventing this form of printing, and then saying to yourself, “Well, I will also make every margin precisely flush, instead of allowing myself a ragged line at the right edge.”

While Latin required about 24 letters in the 1450s, plus numbers and punctuation, Gutenberg created a set of characters that numbered by many counts just under 300, and which included several dozen ligatures, plus dozens of common abbreviations that were drawn to fit better as well.

Portion of a page of Gutenberg’s Bible from Letterform Archive, San Francisco (photo by yours truly)

Subsequent printers and type foundries created vastly smaller sets, relying on spacing, hyphenation, and other techniques to produce texts that looked good, but required fewer different pieces of type. Early printers made their own type, and it was at least until the late 1500s before type foundries become common in supplying type to printers.

Each piece of type (until the late 1800s) requires precise carving on a piece of steel (the punch) that was stamped into a copper or brass to form a mold (a matrix) from which lead-alloy type was cast. It could take a few hours to two days to carve each punch, making very large fonts exceedingly expensive and time consuming.

In the late 1800s, faster methods of type production emerged, allowing the use of the lead alloy (known as type metal) for carving in conjunction with electrotyping, that deposited copper instead of requiring a strike to make a mold. Then, the invention of the motorized pantograph for tracing letter patterns and cutting them with little effort dramatically sped up the production of fonts, and allowed a proliferation in typefaces, and for each typeface, often many weights, styles, and sizes, as well as larger character sets.

In the digital era, it’s as easy to draw a ligature as it is to draw a regular character — most ligatures start by using characters already drawn in the face, too — though it may take extra time to get its fussy appearance just right. Many typefaces have some lovely combinations, including historic ones as shown above, as well as entirely new forms. Emigré’s Zuzana Licko’s incredible Mrs Eaves typeface family includes oodles of discretionary ligatures, appropriate for a face designed for such beautiful legibility.

Just some of Mrs Eaves’s ligatures

Yet everything has to match up. Specialized equipment is often used in production of things like the printing for Christmas crackers, and those devices may not be Unicode compliant or support other text encodings. These encodings, marked by a bit of invisible text at the start of a document or range of text, explain what the numeric values in the document are mapped to in terms of characters in a given set. (That is, a file contains numbers for each character, and a device reading the file has to interpret what each number means; the encoding is the key for conversion of those numbers into the correct characters.)

When it works, which it mostly does, it’s great. When it doesn’t, you get tofu, question marks contained inside diamonds, or runs of characters like æ–‡å — 化ã, all of which are called “mojibake” (transformed text).

Andrew Taylor, a developer in Manchester, UK, wrote up a Twitter thread about this around Christmas 2018 to give people a resource to point to. He noted in this thread a smart point:

…almost certainly the joke *was* proof-read, but in a font where it rendered correctly and made perfect sense. I mean obviously it still wasn’t *funny*, but it’s a cracker joke, they’re not supposed to be funny.

Thus someone may have seen on a screen the correct text, but nobody actually looked closely at the millions upon millions of “jokes” that spat out of a proprietary production system that, for all we know, automatically stuffs the crackers. No human hands were involved, and as the Fish elves noted, it would require opening a zillion crackers to find just the ones with this incorrectly formatted joke and removing it to fix the problem — and no con medicine will cause death or injury.

Glenn Fleishman is a journalist, journeyperson type historian, and the maker of Tiny Type Museum & Time Capsules. He’s the author of Six Centuries of Type & Printing, a book that traces the technology of type and printing from before Gutenberg through the modern digital era, available in letterpress and ebook editions.



Technology journalist, editor, letterpress printer, and two-time Jeopardy! champion. I seem to know everyone #glenning

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Glenn Fleishman

Technology journalist, editor, letterpress printer, and two-time Jeopardy! champion. I seem to know everyone #glenning