Word Matters Podcast

Dipping Into the Mailbag: 'Yeet,' 'Typeface' vs. 'Font,' and 'Lo and Behold'

Word Matters, episode 75

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We're back to the mailbag this week with some excellent questions, including:

When will 'yeet' be in the dictionary?

What's the difference between a typeface and a font?

Why do people say 'lo and behold'?

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, some questions from you. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

New slang words pop up all the time, but we can't just yeet them all into the dictionary, can we? No, of course not. But yeet itself may be getting closer. I'll get us started on this one.

We have a question from Vincent. The word yeet is very popular with my preteen children and has currency online, at least on Twitter, where I see it used multi-generationally. Merriam-Webster doesn't define it yet. I personally prefer "toss it" or "fling it" when my daughter might just say, "Just yeet it," and I appreciate the verbal force it contains. What conditions would need to be met for it to leave the pages of the Urban Dictionary and be defined in Merriam Webster?

Yeet. This is spelled Y-E-E-T, and this is a word that I've been paying attention to for quite a while. Are you all familiar with it, Peter and Ammon?

Ammon Shea: I have a 12-year-old son, so yes.

Emily Brewster: Yes. How does your son use it?

Ammon Shea: In the sense of "fling with brio."

Emily Brewster: Yes. So does he actively yeet things?

Ammon Shea: He more talks about yeeting them, or things that deserve to be yeeted, than he does actually yeet things, I think.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, my 10-year-old also uses the word in that way, and sometimes uses the word interjectionally when he is yeeting something, which he does occasionally do.

Ammon Shea: Ah, okay.

Emily Brewster: It's got some great power to it. Now I have, in recent years when I've been talking to audiences of various types before, I have used yeet as an example of a word that is kind of in search of a meaning. When I first became aware of it, maybe about five years ago, I was hearing it and seeing it occasionally, and it was often used with a meaning that was indecipherable. It hadn't yet settled into this meaning that is "to throw." It wasn't perceptively even verbal, necessarily. So it's more in recent years that I've heard, "Just yeet this."

A bunch of years ago, I did some research. I looked at Lexis-Nexis, that database of newspapers that goes back many years, and I found an example from 2007. And this is from the Birmingham News, Birmingham (Alabama) News: "Today's word is yeet, yelled by the Ramsay student section whenever a player makes a free throw. The meaning? No one knows, not coaches, not players, not cheerleaders, not fans." So for its first years that I was aware of the word, it was an utterance and its meaning was not really very settled. I think now it is. It's getting closer and closer to qualifying for dictionary entry, but I think it's such an interesting example of a word that has really, for a while, seemed to be in search of a meaning.

Ammon Shea: I think it's a fascinating word, and I think you're absolutely right about it being a word in search for a meaning and it solidifying semantically. The thing that I find particularly interesting about yeet is that a lot of the discourse around this word that I see now, online at least, is people saying, "No one says yeet anymore." People have been saying, "No one says yeet anymore," for the last five or six years, I feel like. And the fact that we're still avowing this, or averring this, is testament to its staying power. I do think yeet is showing a kind of stickiness and a propensity of use.

Emily Brewster: I did find an example of it in Urban Dictionary that shows that in more wide use, its meaning was not necessarily understood. But this example, this is posted by user Bubba "Skoal", S-K-O-A-L, Johnson, this Urban Dictionary entry was made on March 11th, 2008, so only one year after that example from the Birmingham News, it's defined as "used to express excitement, especially used in basketball when someone has shot a three-pointer that they are sure will go in the hoop. Also can be used as an exclamatory yeet or as a verb, to yeet someone." And it's not really clear what yeeting someone is. Does that mean throwing someone into the basketball hoop? It's a little unclear at this point that this entry was written, but I think this is actually a very well-constructed Urban Dictionary entry.

Peter Sokolowski: It's helpful. It shows also what the mistakes that people make, which is give a sentence but have no context. We don't know what "to yeet someone" actually means.

Emily Brewster: Right. That's true.

Peter Sokolowski: He went so far as to give the sentence and the syntax, but we don't understand what it means. However, going from an interjection to a verb, an interjection of approval or joy or congratulations to a verb, I can sort of see that.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, definitely. Now in 2014, there was also a yeet dance move that was popular on Vine, the video-sharing platform. I don't think Vine exists anymore, but you can still find this yeet dance of a kid in 2014. It involves arm swings, not basketball and not throwing anything forcefully. So the word has really... It's been in a bunch of different places. And I do think that as soon as I started encounter the word yeet in places like Twitter, I was also seeing, Ammon like you, that people were saying, "Well, nobody uses it anymore." But it actually has only just started being used in my household.

Peter Sokolowski: There's a parallel with informal language from the pre-social media era, because it brings to mind a word that had been bothering me for years that was not entered in a Merriam-Webster dictionary. It's a word that I grew up using, and the word is huck, meaning "to throw."

Ammon Shea: Huck?

Peter Sokolowski: ... meaning exactly the same thing. "Huck it over here."

Ammon Shea: Huh.

Peter Sokolowski: "Huck the ball." It was added to our online dictionary exactly a year ago, so in 2021 around January. We give it a date of 1982 in its use as a verb, but I can confirm from my boyhood I'm sure it was in use as a spoken term before then. And it's just an interesting parallel in the sense that it does not have the amplification of social media and it took whatever that was, 40 years, for it to finally land in the dictionary. But it has been part of my idiolect my whole life. With the kids on my street growing up, that was a word that I don't even think we took as being particularly informal. It was just another word for throw.

Emily Brewster: Yeah, interesting. Just to really make clear what the answer to Vincent's question is, yeet has an excellent chance of being entered in the relatively near future because we have evidence of the word in print going back to about 2007 at least. This is just preliminary research that I did. There will be further research done in other sources to determine if it's actually older than that in print. And it has settled into a meaning, so it's really doing well as far as words that qualify for entry in the merriam-webster.com dictionary.

You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be right back with more listener questions. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Coming up, we're addressing two of your questions. First, Ammon looks into what happens when laypeople get their hands on printer's jargon. And then lo and behold, I investigate a modern coupling of two archaic words.

Ammon Shea: Joel has written in and said, "I'd love for you to cover font sometime." And he says, "It's a word from the print and design world, trade jargon that I've used my entire adult life, but suddenly it became part of common vernacular." And he says that what got his attention was hearing his father mention a typeface as a font, using the word typeface to refer to a font, in the early nineties. Joel mentions that he has written a blog piece differentiating between these.

This is an interesting question because it raises all kinds of interesting points. What is the role of a dictionary in telling people when they're wrong or telling experts that their word has kind of escaped, slipped its bounds, entered the common use? The issue here is that people who are passionate about printing or who are professionals dealing with print and type like very much to differentiate between typeface and font. They are not the same thing. Whereas the rest of us, we see a bunch of letters that all look vaguely similar and we say, "Oh, that font is Helvetica or Bolton," or something like that. So do you guys distinguish between font and typeface?

Peter Sokolowski: I would say I do, but we're not good sample subjects in the sense that we work in publishing. And so the fact is in my early days at Merriam-Webster, we were still reading what we call the blue lines, the blues, the typeset pages from the typesetter to find errors before they go to press. And so a lot of these terms were actually bandied about the office, and typeface means one thing and font means something else. And for me, they're almost a little bit mechanical and digital as a divide, but that's pretty rough as a distinction.

Ammon Shea: What about-

Emily Brewster: I feel like I mostly learned the term font from Microsoft Word. That's what I think of. That is what's familiar to me, and I think I learned the distinction between them much later. The fact is that most of us are introduced to this now just by being able to choose fonts when you're learning to do word processing. When my kid is learning how to type, the most exciting thing to do is to choose the different fonts. You're not choosing a typeface, you're choosing a font, according to the word processing program that you're using.

Ammon Shea: According to professionals or those, again, who are passionate about printing, you are are choosing a typeface, which is all the type of a single design. And then within that typeface, say within Helvetica, there are many fonts. And a font can be a size. It can be bold or italic. So a typeface is composed of, seems to us sometimes, innumerable fonts, but it is in the view of such people considered to be very much a mistake.

Emily Brewster: A font was originally... In the old printing methods, it would be the actual metal piece.

Ammon Shea: What makes it slightly more confusing is that in British English, they refer to this as fount rather than font quite often. Not always, but fount is used rather than font in the same sense. And font does have a different meaning. It was a receptacle for baptismal water, it was a receptacle for holy water. It can be used to mean the source or a fountain, and that's because there are two distinct words. Font, the one for water or fountain, comes from fons, the Latin word for fountain, and the one relating to type in printing comes from... [inaudible 00:11:18] is Latin, which is fundere, meaning "to found" or "to pour."

Peter Sokolowski: So the font is the molten leads, the metal that they're pouring into the shape, into the form.

Emily Brewster: That's funny to me-

Ammon Shea: Right.

Emily Brewster: ... that the British sometimes say fount instead of font because they're not etymologically related.

Ammon Shea: I believe they are. Well, that sense of fount is also related to fundere.

Emily Brewster: Oh, it is. Okay.

Ammon Shea: Two different fonts, two different founts. Our definition, though, of font relating to type is just "an assortment or set of type or characters all of one style and sometimes one size," which is a little more general than printers would perhaps like. And our mandate, though, is not, in this case, to say, "This word must retain its specificity of meaning." Our mandate is to say, "This is how people are using the language."

And you could, I suppose, make the case that we should differentiate between how experts use a word and how laypeople use a word. But if we did that with everything, we would end up with a significantly larger dictionary, one might even say an unwieldy one. And it's the nature of the language that words have specific meanings within trades or within specialties, and then once the public gets their grubby little hands on it, the word just starts to mean whatever people use it to mean.

Peter Sokolowski: My example for this always is the word that we use daily in our office work, which is the word pron. And it means "the transcription of a phonetic sound." A pronunciation, in other words. "Give me the pron for that." And that's a word that is so inside baseball, it's so within our field and within our very office that I'm sure we won't even enter it in our own dictionary because it's just the closed language, which is what a jargon is. It's the shorthand that specialists use.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Emily Brewster: Yes. One that comes to my mind is the joke about how many people does it take to change a-

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right.

Emily Brewster: ... A light bulb. But if your business is lighting, you do no call it a light bulb. You call it a lamp.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, is that true?

Emily Brewster: It is true. I learned this a bunch of years ago from a friend whose business was lighting. And he's like, "No, no, no, that is not a light bulb. That is a lamp." If you look up the word light bulb, we define it as an electric lamp such as... And then we go to give a couple different kinds. But light bulb is the layperson's term for it.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that I find kind of humorous or tragic, depending on your point of view, about this in terms of the printing industry is that there are a lot of technical words in printing that then entered general use and totally lost their meaning, like stereotype.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Ammon Shea: Which to make a stereotype from. It's a plate cast from a printing surface. Stereotype. It had a very literal meaning. And now, we just use it to mean "believing unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are one and the same."

Peter Sokolowski: Exactly. And cliché is another of those terms, is that right?

Ammon Shea: Right. Yeah. And cliché was another term. Cliché and stereotype in printing were used, I think, interchangeably.

Peter Sokolowski: It's just because it's one of those things that blows my mind, because the term stereo... And I grew up listening to records, and I always associated it with a duality, with two, two channels, left and right, that I thought stereo meant "two." But actually, stereo means, going back to its roots, it means "solid." In other words, stereotype meant three dimensional type, one that had body, one that had mass. And that was what was the result of the poured liquid lead that you poured into a thing. And then you had writing that actually had a dimension to it, and then that could be then printed onto paper. So stereo really means "solid" or "three dimensional," not "two dimensional" or "two channel."

Ammon Shea: I feel like we should say to people that you can continue using type and typeface and font however you want, but you should know that if you are speaking to somebody who works in printing, they would probably appreciate if you differentiate between them insofar as a typeface is made up of multiple fonts.

Peter Sokolowski: As a postscript, it might be interesting to listeners to know that there is a specific Merriam-Webster typeface which we, I have to say, in the office often call the Merriam-Webster font. Because printing a dictionary has always been a challenge to shoehorn as much information on a single page as possible, so another of these terms is leading, L-E-A-D-I-N-G, leading, which is the distance between the lines, the space between the lines. And so the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, if you have an 11th edition, take a look at it. It's, I believe, the only book in American publishing that has negative leading, that the distance between the lines is actually shorter than the space of a letter, of the height of a letter. That means we needed to create new descenders and ascenders. The Qs and the Ps and the Ls and the Hs and the Ks are all changed slightly. And also, things like the bulb part of a B or a P were extended to make it legible, to make it easily readable and yet still squeeze in all of that type. And it's an alteration of Times New Roman and it's called the Merriam-Webster font.

Emily Brewster: Patrick writes, "My wife often uses the phrase "lo and behold," and I get the meaning. But while the behold portion makes sense, the lo portion leaves me scratching my head. Any insights on how this pair of words came together to form this phrase?" I like this phrase, lo and behold. It sounds very, very, very old. And it was very surprising to me to find that it's not really all that old.

Both elements, lo and behold, they both date to the earliest days of the English language, before the 12th century. Behold means "to perceive through sight or apprehension; see." It's also used to mean "to gaze upon," and it can also be used in the imperative to call attention like, "Behold, so and so is arriving," or something. And then lo is used to call attention or to express wonder or surprise. So it's a very general term. It's kind of akin to saying, "Hey, look at that," or "Whoa." But the two were not really put together for hundreds and hundreds of years. Ammon, you found an early example from the late 18th century. I'm going to read it.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Emily Brewster: "Accordingly, he pulls his leather box out of his pocket, opens it with great formality and awe when lo and behold, there was a pack of cards, and the knave of clubs staring him full in the face."

Ammon Shea: That was from an article titled "Fortitude Against Popery," because it feels like three-fifths of our antedatings come from anti-papist [inaudible 00:17:50], basically.

Emily Brewster: For a fortitude against popery, a valued thing at some point, and perhaps even still. It's so interesting to me that lo and behold, each of these elements, they precede the combining of these words by hundreds of years.

Ammon Shea: We've always loved a good fake archaic turn of phrase.

Emily Brewster: I think that's exactly what it is. It's being used for effect. Put together these two very archaic words and you get something that sounds even more archaic.

Ammon Shea: Ye olde is-

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Ammon Shea: ... a great example. "Ye Olde Hamburger Shop, Ye Olde Button Manufacturing," whatever. There's no evidence of "ye olde" before the middle of the 19th century. It was entirely a creation of the 1850s.

Peter Sokolowski: The ye was simply a printing limitation that the-

Ammon Shea: T-H.

Peter Sokolowski: ... character for the T-H sound didn't exist in what might've been called fonts or typefaces, and so they would substitute the letter Y. So if you saw that word in the 16th century, you would pronounce it the.

Emily Brewster: They're making archaisms where there are none.

Peter Sokolowski: But that's sort of what language always does. There's always a kind of misty past that people think is either more correct or somehow the original, and it's in fact neither. And we encounter it all the time in language, these traces of the past that have been altered since the past.

Emily Brewster: Yes, and the language invites its users to do these kinds of things.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, absolutely.

Emily Brewster: This is the pleasure of using the language, that it is your tool and you can do with it what you want. And if you want, in the fortitude against popery that you are trying to spread to an audience, to employ these archaic words and lump them together and put together something new that then is carrying on into the 21st century, it's a beautiful example of the great potential and power of the English language.

Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com.

Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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