Arts 101: Publishing Lingo

Want to find a place in the arts world that abounds with colorful language? Try looking at an art that’s dependent on it.

Today we continue our series explaining unusual words and phrases in the arts by looking at the language of book publishing.

Open Book on Washington Avenue in Minneapolis calls itself “a home for literary and book arts.” Among its tenants are Milkweed Editions, a nonprofit publisher of literature for adults and young readers; and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA), which is dedicated to preserving the traditional crafts of bookmaking.

Open Book in Minneapolis

Open Book in Minneapolis celebrated its tenth anniversary last May.

Ben Barnhart, an editor at Milkweed, and Jeff Rathermel, the executive director at MCBA, were happy to share the specialized language from their industry, an industry filled with terms that sound anything from cryptic to macabre.


According to Milkweed’s Barnhart, the slushpile is the stack of manuscript submissions that accumulates at a publishing house. Items in the slushpile are waiting to be read by an editor, who then determines whether a publisher will pursue or decline the submission. Barnhart has seen photos of slushpiles that tower over editors’ heads, but those days may be over. “Now our slushpile is actually digital because we take submissions online,” he says. “We don’t have that looming spectre of manuscripts anymore.”

Ben Barnhart of Milkweed Editions

Editor Ben Barnhart of Milkweed Editions.

dead dogs and dead cats

“I don’t think anyone would mistake ‘dead dogs and dead cats’ for something pleasant,” Barnhart prefaces before explaining that dead dogs and dead cats are manuscripts that have been sent to — and rejected by — every publisher in the industry. Barnhart says that he expects persistent book agents to send dead dogs and dead cats, and that sometimes a manuscript rejected by a larger publishing house is just right for Milkweed. “But if you’re an editor worth your title, you’ll have at least one phone call with an agent when you’ll say, ‘I want to see new work, and I don’t want to see any dead dogs or dead cats!'” he chuckles. “That’s just kind of part of the game we play.”

mould and deckle

This pairing comprises the equipment that’s used to make a piece of paper. The mould is a frame with a screen on it that sieves paper out of pulp. The deckle is the frame. “And the little shelf where you put your frame, that’s called the ass,” Rathermel laughs. “I think that comes from the ‘mule’ sense of the word.”

A mould and deckle

MCBA’s Jeff Rathermel holds a mould and deckle.

dandy roll

In a paper mill, the dandy roll is a little roller that embosses a watermark onto freshly pulled paper.

printer’s devil

In a print shop, the printer’s devil is a young apprentice.

“out of sorts”

An individual piece of lead type is called a sort. A drawer that doesn’t contain enough of the letter E, for example, is described as being “out of sorts”.


Rathermel selects a sort from the Bookman typeface.

Because a case of type that is “out of sorts” is not fully functional or usable, we’ve gained the general idiom “out of sorts” to describe a person who is not well or not behaving properly. Yet another idiom that comes from printing is…

“mind your Ps and Qs”

“…and your Bs and Ds,” Rathermel cautions. “When you’re typesetting with lead type, you’re setting type upside down and backwards, so p’s, b’s, d’s, q’s all kind of look the same. But you can’t just use a d backwards to be a q; they’re all designed in a specific way.”

Rathermel suggests it’s from this rule in the printing world that we get the idiomatic expression admonishing us to be on our best behavior, although etymologist Michael Quinion isn’t so sure.

hell box

Any pieces of type that are dropped on the floor in a print shop are picked up and tossed into the hell box. “It’s a box of lead pieces from maybe 20, 30 different type faces, all different sizes, and someone–usually the printer’s devil–has to find the right cabinet each piece goes back into,” Rathermel explains. “It is a hell box. That’s where the name comes from.”


The hell box contains a jumble of lead type pieces, all of which must eventually be returned to their proper places.

widows and orphans

An orphan is when the last word of a preceding paragraph doesn’t reach past the empty indent space for a subsequent paragraph; a widow is when the last line of a paragraph gets bumped over a page spread, so only a single or partial line of text appears at the top of the page. “I think those are crazy terms,” Barnhart muses, “but they’re kind of wonderful terms as well.”

Widows and orphans can be fixed by reflowing the type so it lines up in a more visually pleasing way.


The gutters are the inside margins within a page layout.


Although a signature can certainly be an author’s autograph, when it comes to bookbinding, a signature is collection of page layouts that are folded together into a booklet. Ordinal stacks of signatures are what will eventually be bound into completed books.


An array of signatures is what becomes a finished book.

knocking up

Once signatures are stacked in the right order, they are “knocked up” — or squared into place — before they are bound into books.


When signatures are folded together, the edges of the center piece of paper are going to extend further out than the edges of the outside piece of paper. That difference is called creep. Sometimes a publisher will choose to leave the undulating pattern of creep in place; most of the time, publishers will lop off the creep. And the name of the device used to do that?


A guillotine is the device publishers use to cut the creep off a book. “It cuts pretty easy,” Rathermel explains as he pulls a massive iron lever that lowers a huge blade across a thick volume. “It’s a very sharp blade and it’s counterweighted, so it just kind of comes at it, has this sideways angle, and it just kind of slices it off.”

The guillotine

Rathermel prepares to guillotine a book.

It may be obvious but it merits saying: Keep fingers clear.

Next Tuesday, visit State of the Arts for lingo from the world of photography.

Comments are closed.