Happy Wednesday, word nerds! This week’s Word Nerd post is inspired by last week’s Top Ten Tuesday post, in which I gave a list of people that book lovers everywhere should be thankful for. In the process of putting together that post, I came across the origin of the word stereotype, and it was so interesting that I thought I’d share it with you!
First of all, the word itself, stereotype, comes from two Greek words: stereos meaning “solid” and typos meaning “impression”. Hence, the word literally means “solid impression”.
Today, the word has a slightly different meaning:
A widely held but fixed and oversimplified idea or image of a particular type of person or thing.Oxford Dictionary
To understand how we got from one to the other, we need to have a little look at how the printing process developed.
The earliest form of printing was developed in China and involved carving the image or text onto wooden blocks. Movable type (using individual components to make up the whole rather than carving the print in one piece) was also developed by the Chinese around A.D.1040—a man by the name of Bi Sheng, to be precise—but it wasn’t until Johannes Gutenberg came up with the printing press and a way to mass produce movable type that printing really began to take off.
While Gutenberg’s method of using moulds to cast movable type was much quicker than carving wood, the printing process still had its limitations. You had to select and place each letter by hand—a time consuming process—and once the letters were in use, you had to wait until you were finished printing with those letters to create your next page. Too, once you had done your printing run, should you ever wish to print that page again you would have to remake the whole plate. For every page! Consider for a moment that the Bible was the first book to be printed using Gutenberg’s movable type and you can appreciate that the printing process was still a laborious one, particularly when it came to reprints! Just imagine creating every page of the Bible by placing each letter in place! 😳 At least you could easily make multiple copies once you had made the plate, but printing a whole Bible would still be a very lengthy process.
As this is a selective, truncated history of printing, let’s skip forward a few hundred years. Printing is going gangbusters—not just books but newspapers and periodicals. While it’s not certain who first came up with or employed the idea, somewhere along the way, someone looked at the forme they’d just put together (the completed page, ready for printing) and said, “Wouldn’t it be neat if I could make a copy of this whole page and give it to someone else to print while I got started on making the next page?” Or something like that . . .
That, my friends, became the process called stereotyping. Once all the movable type had been placed and the forme created, an impression of the completed page was made in plaster or papier-mâché, which matrix was then covered with molten metal in order to make a plate of the completed page. If you want to see an example and a short video demonstrating the process, then check out this post at The Print Guide.
The metal plate created by this process was the stereotype—because it was, in fact, a “solid impression” of the original forme. Not only did this free up the movable type while the printing was taking place, but the stereotype could be used again if reprints were required at a later date, rather than having to recreate each page with movable type.
And now you’re probably beginning to see where our modern definition of the word comes in. When you use a stereotype, you’re creating an exact replica of something—it’s unoriginal, without individual nuance. And while that might be exactly what you want when it comes to printing, you can see how it begins to take on a negative connotation when you apply it people and characters.
The use of the word stereotype to mean “image perpetuated without change” outside of a printing context is first recorded in 1850. It’s not recorded as being used in it’s modern sense given above—a “preconceived and oversimplified notion of characteristics typical of a person or group”—until 1922. (Online Etymology Dictionary)
So, there you have it. Now you not only know where the word stereotype comes from; you also know a little bit of printing history!