Did you know that stereotypes didn't exist before 1922?

Alright, more accurately the use of the term stereotype in the sense of an oversimplified generalization about a particular type of person or thing is less than a century old. Walter Lippmann's classic text Public Opinion – read it and you'll feel like it was written last year rather than during World War I – debuted the term to the mass public. Oddly enough, though, he drops it in the text cold without introducing or defining it, leaving open the possibility that the term may already have been circulating in literate circles at the time. Alternatively he may simply have assumed that readers could understand it from context. So the follow-up question is: Where did Lippmann get it from? He certainly was a great writer. Perhaps he just made it up?

Not exactly. Stereotype was the name of a printing process invented in 1795 by a Frenchman named Firmin Didot, the son of the man who invented the Didot typeface for those of you who are into such things. Firmin coined it, as was the style of the time, by combining two Latin terms: stereo (solid) and typos (impression). Therefore in the literal sense a stereotype is a solid impression of a group of people. "Solid" in this case has no positive connotation (e.g., "a solid victory" or "do me a solid brah") but to its firmness and lack of variation. The stereotype printing process involved a means of reproducing printing plates efficiently and then using the reproduced (stereotyped) plates to print rather than the original. This allowed extremely consistent printing at a good rate of production, and Didot was very successful. In short, he pioneered a process of churning out unvarying, nearly identical copies of a single source.

I have no idea how or why Walter Lippmann was acquainted with the technical details of antiquated French printing processes. It is inarguable that the term is uniquely suited to conveying the spirit and concept of the modern use of the word.

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27 Responses to “NPF: SOLID IMPRESSION”

  1. svnski Says:

    I constantly forget the impact that the printing press had on society, so any excuse to head down a Wikipedia wormhole is greatly appreciated. And away we go!

  2. BruceJ Says:

    As a newspaperman, Lippmann was, however, intimately familiar with the Linotype, which is an improvement on the original stereotype, and was the standard in printing for nearly a century.

    (In my high school, our printing shop was gifted a couple Linotype machines by the local newspaper when they switched to offset lithography in the early 70's. It was an awesome, scary machine to work, clinking and clanging with a large pot of molten lead, kind of the word processor of lead type.

    Also it was in printing class where I learned the original meaning of the word, so I suspect Lippmann learned it as well from the printing world)

    Of course they were long ago reduced to scrap, along with all the other industrial arts classes I got to take as a privileged Boomer, having gotten in the way of tax cuts, testing mania, and the decimation of Industrial America in favor of Rentier America.

  3. Robert Says:

    Curiously, "cliche" also comes from a French printing term. A phrase used frequently enough would be cast together, so when the text had such a phrase you could just click it in.

    This was a great NPF, by the way.

  4. Katydid Says:

    @BruceJ; lucky you, taking such an instructive class! All the "frills" were gone by the time the Baby Boomers aged out of high school, but my parents made me take the next-closest thing: Typing, which was done on 15-year-old electric typewriters (because we Gen Xers weren't worth the investment). My Boomer parents made me take it because every girl should know how in case her husband died and she had to find work as a secretary. They were also hoping I'd give up on the silly notion that I wanted to program computers–computers were for Nerds (that's what the Disney movies of the 1950s and 1960s said, and that's what they believed). What man would ever want a nerd girl?

    The BASIC class I took in 1982 was done on the Apple computer, which was so unique in that it didn't use Courier font as a standard–we had a choice of fonts, some of them quite calligraphic! (Spoiler; the COBOL and FORTRAN classes both used the university mainframe and we were stuck with Courier font.)

  5. SeaTea Says:

    I worked at a check printing factory for a couple of years and despite the fact that we had huge state-of-the-art offset printing presses that were worth a shit-ton of money, there were, inexplicably, still three or four people who worked in a dark back room using Linotype machines. They sat in this room with molten lead pots heated and reusable type negatives clanking down chutes as they typed away. I don't remember what was different about the stuff that was done on Linotype, but I do remember being keenly aware that it must be super dangerous to work with that much lead every day.

    I remember that one of the Linotype operators was the most well-paid employee in the company (apart from the owners).

  6. jon Says:

    I used to work in a print shop where a Linotype machine sat unused most of the week, but loved the days I was asked to pour pigs of lead and tin from the smelter. It was the coolest thing, even if it wasn't the opening of Conan the Barbarian. (I may or may not have hummed that music. Not telling.)

    Most of the stuff was huge offset printing, but I had a lot of fondness for that old equipment. The bindery stuff was dangerous looking, the pneumatic paper cutter was insane (had a boss with a half-hand,) and eventually I ended up being a stripper (in the darkroom, doing pre-press stuff like setting negatives and making the plates.) Best job ever for a college student who enjoyed lots of time to think.

  7. mothra Says:

    Hey Jon, you really were a college student who supported himself by stripping. Bwahahahahaha.

    Yeah, kids these days don't know what they are missing with their fancy computers and such. One of our young associates at our firm spoke of a typing class he took where they had you position your hands in a certain way to type. He acted like this was antiquated. I asked him how on earth he typed, if not by this method? It then dawned on me that the QWERTY method is likely dead, thanks to texting.

  8. Jason T. Says:

    I had no idea Lippman may have been responsible for introducing the term to social science

    But to follow up on what BruceJ said, yes, as a newspaperman, Walter Lippman would have heard the term "stereotype" often.

    The "stereotype department" of the newspaper would have been responsible for making the actual printing plates:

    Printers would have taken the output of the Linotype machines and pressed them into "forms", along with any photos or drawings.

    The forms would then go to the stereotype department, where they would be pressed into heavy, mushy paper to make a flexible "mat." Then, the printers would have poured molten metal into the "mat" to make the actual curved plates to put onto the rotary printing presses.

    Multiple, perfectly identical mats — and plates — could then have been made from the same typeset forms. They were "stereotyped."

    (This is also where the term "boiler plate" comes from. PR firms would send out publicity material, such as publicity photos, pre-made into metal plates, which the newspapers could use to make mats from. But since it was mostly crap, a good newspaperman would say "that garbage is just good for boiler plates." Hence, "boiler plate.")

  9. Jon Says:

    > It then dawned on me that the QWERTY method is likely dead, thanks to texting.

    If I'm being honest, good riddance. I type faster with three fingers and no carpel tunnel.

  10. Jimcat Says:

    Re Jason T. on "boiler plate": I heard a different story about that term. In the early days of steamships, vessels would carry sheet metal for use in patching the boiler if it ruptured. If the hull was breached by an underwater obstacle (or, in the case of warships, battle damage), they could save the ship temporarily by using the boiler plates as emergency hull patches.

  11. Alan C Says:

    QWERTY has actually been obsolete ever since typewriters were replaced by computer keyboards. The keys are arranged so that they're less likely to jam up if the user types too fast. Of course since everyone's used to it now, it will probably live on.

  12. bs Says:

    15-year-old electric typewriters? LOOXURY! When I took a typing class in 8th grade, we hadda use manual typewriters which had to be pounded to make a legible impression. (looked like this: Besides this method killing my speed, my skinny fingers would get stuck between the keys constantly. I found a way to get to use one of the 3 (probably 15-year-old) electrics though: I dislocated my thumb playing pickup football, & voila!

  13. greatlaurel Says:

    Great NPF. Word origins are important in understanding culture, language and history. Thank you. I would love to read your take on sisu, the Finnish word that loosely translates in English to perseverance and toughness. but is much more. Sisu is, in my opinion, what is missing in American culture. So many people resent the slightest sacrifice, like paying the slightest increase in taxes, to maintain or improve things for everyone. We have lost our American version of sisu.

    @BruceJ I think you have hit on something about the Boomers. The Boomers and the generation born no more than 5 years before the Boomers became adults who lost the ability to comprehend how tough life is without a safety net. They all grew up with decent public schools, affordable college, good technical educations and all the other good things that came from the FDR administration. They voted for Reagan in droves and pulled up the safety net after them for all the generations to come after them. My cohort were not considered Boomers when we were in school, but now are considered to be Boomers. Many people my age became virulently anti-union and anti-taxes even though they benefited from the programs as young people. It is very strange.

    I think a lot of this some of this comes from so many people growing up with little contact with people different from themselves in class and ethnicity. I heard an interview with Toni Morrison describing her youth in Lorain, Ohio, where there was very little segregation and most of her neighbors were black, or ethnic European and Hispanic immigrants who were all poor until after WWll. She is 84. so not a Boomer.

  14. Skipper Says:

    Jason T is exactly right. The stereotype process was used in newspapers into the '70s and possibly '80s, when they made the change to computerized typesetting. It's hardly an antique process. Anyone who worked for a newspaper before 1980 would likely have been familiar with the process.

  15. Kaleberg Says:

    The stereotype process made it easy to compose pages by using pictures or chunks of text that one might have lying around from earlier projects to build a page. According to an 1823 example in the OED "[They] are printed with what are called stereotypes, the types in each page being soldered together into a solid mass." It was what we now called cut-and-paste.

    From the OED, by 1850 the word meant "Something continued or constantly repeated without change; a stereotyped phrase, formula, etc.; stereotyped diction or usage." You can imagine the newsroom: "The president made a speech at the White House. Use that old picture of the president and that blurb about the White House." "The SS Whatsit went down. It was a schooner. Run an article with that picture of a sinking schooner." Laziness dates back to well before the 19th century.

    By the early 20th century the term referred to "A preconceived and oversimplified idea of the characteristics which typify a person, situation, etc.; an attitude based on such a preconception. Also, a person who appears to conform closely to the idea of a type." That's more or less what it means now.

    This kind of metaphorical extension is quite common. We'll call someone a clone even if he or she isn't an identical twin. We'll talk about a laser like mind which is kind of weird since lasers don't do much in the way of thinking. We'll call someone plastic as an insult rather than as a compliment. (Plastic can imply flexibility or inauthenticity.)

  16. HoosierPoli Says:

    Skipper: The phrase "Anyone who worked for a newspaper before 1980" is pretty hilariously antique already. It's situated somewhere between telegrams and payphones.

  17. Skipper Says:

    @HoosierPoli — so anyone who was in the work force before 1980 is an "antique?"

  18. matt regan Says:

    The concept is much older than the word, after all "timeo danaos et dona ferentes."

  19. Katydid Says:

    @Greatlaurel; thanks for reminding me about sisu, and I think you're absolutely right. One example: on the national news last night, the big story was the snowstorm sweeping up the east coast. One person-on-the-street was outraged that her local store was *out of organic carrots*. Why is this a thing to get so upset over? Of course you hit the nail on the head when you pointed out all the people who are apoplectic at the thought of paying taxes…and also apoplectic that their street isn't instantly plowed before the last snowflake falls. Where do they suppose the money comes from to do stuff like this?

    I spent my school years with obviously hand-me-down books, furniture, etc. (And we moved a lot as a military family, so it wasn't just one crappy school district.) We were constantly hearing from the teachers that there used to be money for field trips, used to be money for X, Y, Z, which were now cut out because the leading-edge Boomers had finished their schooling and were not interested in funding the same perqs for the tail-end Boomers or Gen X. Stuff broke, and we either worked around it or did without. The Mad Max movie that came out in the 1980s perfectly captured the feeling of the age: "we are the children, the last generation, we are the ones they left behind".

    It wasn't until the tail-end Boomers started having kids that suddenly the "baby on board" stickers appeared and everyone got a trophy just for showing up. Millenials are simultaneously being bombarded by "Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?!?" and "No new taxes!"

  20. Skepticalist Says:

    It was fun "throwing the carriage" on my old Royal.

  21. Jestbill Says:

    @Katydid "…which were now cut out because the leading-edge Boomers had finished their schooling and were not interested in funding the same perqs for the tail-end Boomers or Gen X. "

    Did you start making school funding decisions right out of school?

    Blame the Korea generation of leaders for most of the damage. Who was the first non-WWII President? Leadership makes decisions and leadership ages veerrryy slowly.

  22. John M. Burt Says:

    This thread is definitely going into my feed,

  23. Katydid Says:

    @JestBill, I imagine numbers are really, really hard for you to understand, but I'll try to break it down for you:

    Leading-Edge Boomers were born in the mid-1940s to mid-1950s. By the late 1980s, those Boomers were in their late 40s to late 30s. They were absolutely on school boards and making funding decisions by their late 40s; weren't you in any sort of professional capacity by then?

  24. Interrobang Says:

    Katydid, I think we're within 10 years or so in age of each other. I was born at the nadir of the Baby Bust, in 1975. One side benefit was that my classrooms weren't crowded, because there just weren't enough of us to go around.

    The anti-tax thing didn't hit here (in Canada) heavily until the Mulroney Conservatives, 1984-1993, so it took a while for them to really do some damage. I think the next cohort after me got the brunt of it, since by 1993, I was starting university. Tuition went up every year, though, and has only skyrocketed since, and G-d help you if you want to go to medical school.

    I should mention that Mulroney got a lot of his ideas from listening to American freshwater economists.

    My maternal grandfather was a lithographer and typesetter, so this thread is giving me a nice warm nostalgic glow.

  25. greatlaurel Says:

    @katydid Great observations. The leading-edge boomers were the new teachers when I was in HS and were the mid level managers when I graduated college. They were not at all liberal in their attitudes and treatment of students or employees. The media seems to portray the boomers as liberals due to the protests against the war, but the protests were all about self preservation not some sort of liberal philosophy. Many of the boomer men, who were midlevel managers, got there by scamming the system to avoid the draft and beating the veterans to the few available jobs, just like the chickenhawks Nugent, Cheney and Bush. These people were decidedly not liberal, but were very interested in keeping their white make privilege.

    Some of the reasons the leading edge boomers are so strange is that their dads came home from WWll with PTSD which was never treated, except by self medication with alcohol. Another problem was the government sponsored sexism to get women out of the work force, so all the veterans could get jobs. The government knew all these guys with all that military training had to be kept busy to make sure they did not cause mischief. Just look what happened in Irag when the Bush administration cut loose all the Irag military with their idiotic de-Bathifiscation policy. Anyway, the Boomers had fathers who were severely damaged from the war and their mothers were treated as third class citizens so the men could have jobs. Then, there was the wholesale destruction of the farm economy to keep food prices low, as well. Lots of horrible dislocation and family destruction, both social and economic from those policies, too. Reagan took that to a whole new level, too, but somehow the "liberals" get the blame by the rural voters.

    The late boomers and Gen X also got to feel the impact of the Vietnam war debt, too, which sucked up all the money for anything worthwhile. Public schools, universities and public facilities like the mental institutions and developmental disability facilities were the first place that were cut to pay back all that unpaid war debt. Funny how the media always blames Carter for inflation when it was the war debt that drove inflation. Before Carter the GOP presidents used wage and price controls to curb inflation.

    @JestBill, the Korean war vets really got the shaft. All the damage from being at war with none of the respect that the WWll guys got. Those guys had very little help and had to do even more self-medication.

  26. Safety Man! Says:

    Ed, good to see you back in the saddle with a classic, intelligent, G & T post.

  27. King of Etruria Says:

    Stereotype is Greek in origin. Your definitions of the two words that form it are correct, but it's not Latin.