Column: Forgive me if I quoin a phrase


If my wife and I didn’t play Words With Friends, I probably would not have been able to work the word “quoin” into a conversation.

I have to admit quoin doesn’t even look like a word. At least not one that normal people would keep in reserve for crossword puzzles and Scrabble.

The first time I played the word my wife rolled her eyes. She does that a lot, especially when I come up with dusty, antique words like quoin. A couple other eye-rollers are fid and wen.

Quoin started out as an architectural word describing the oversized wedge-shaped stone blocks worked into the corner of a stone building. Originally they were used to add strength to the building, Later they morphed into decoration.

That was back in the day when folks were racing around Europe building monasteries and cathedrals. Iffy building materials often needed something to hold them together. Enter quoins.

Then came Johannes Gutenberg in the mid 1500 with his amazing movable type and the printing press. A flat page of type consisted of thousands of individual letters formed into lines, sentences and paragraphs. Like the buildings made of soft stone, they needed something to hold them together. Enter quoins.

The original quoins used in printing were wooden wedges. Once a page of type was finished, the guy who just spent hours painstakingly putting the page together would slip a wedge against the top of the page, and another at the side. Then he would tap them tight with a mallet. Thus snug and secure, the page was ready for the press. The printing process was called letterpress.

For some reason, once Gutenberg showed the world how to do it, the printing industry saw no reason to change it for nearly 500 years. Flatbed presses and movable type remained the ink-on-paper norm until the mid 1950s, when offset printing first emerged as an upstart but workable alternative.

As a matter of fact, you could still buy the wooden wedge quoins in barrels of 7,500 until 1923. About that time, a guy named Hemple came up with quions made of steel with a hand-cranked key to tighten them. Unlike the wooden variety, you could use them more than once. The only other change came from a guy named Merganthaler who invented the Linotype, a machine that set type a full line at a time using molten lead.

Printers don’t use quoins any more. But the word is still very good indeed, especially for Words With Friends. By the way, a fid is a type of marlinspike found on old sailing ships. And a wen is a sebaceous cyst.


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