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From the Inland Printer, January 1927:

[ht Daniel Mellis]


  1. Rebecca said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    So that's where "out of sorts" comes from! I had no idea (and had never actually stopped to wonder)

  2. David L said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

    Michael Quinion casts some doubt on whether the printer's trade is in fact the origin of "out of sorts:"

  3. Sili said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

    So Obama is a Timelord?

    That at least explains his visit to Mars.

  4. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

    To the intended audience of that cartoon, would it have been obvious that one particular congressman was meant? Or is the cartoon just mocking congressmen in general?

  5. Faldone said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

    Note the apostrophe-S plural.

  6. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

    @Faldone: That's normal for letters (though with uppercase letters like in the cartoon, there's more variation than with lowercase ones). Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says, "Letters are normally pluralized with -'s […] although capital letters are sometimes pluralized with -s alone." The Chicago Manual of Style says "the plural of single lowercase letters is formed by adding an apostrophe before the s. […] Capital letters, however, do not normally require an apostrophe in the plural."

  7. Faldone said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

    Odd. The bag labelled SORTS makes it look like sorts were the characters that had been broken down from a previous print job that were not yet sorted, But that doesn't make much sense given the rest of the dialog.

  8. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

    "Sorts" deriving from printing seems like a folk etymology. Doesn't sort indicate a nature, as in "Bob is the sort to act superior"? So, "out of sorts" really derives from this version of sort, meaning out of character.

  9. John Roth said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

    Well, the cartoon is referring to past time, so possibly the person drawing it didn't actually have experience with that kind of typesetting. The Font of All Knowledge ( ) seems to use "sorts" as a term for individual pieces of type. It points out that this practice was obsolete at the end of the 19th century.

  10. Chris C. said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 10:10 pm

    So it seems politicians have been noted as talking about themselves for quite some time. Pity the poor typesetter!

  11. Dick Margulis said,

    October 31, 2012 @ 11:49 pm

    @John Roth: While it is true that machine composition was taking over the industry by the end of the 19th c., hand composition ("hand-pegging" in a composing stick) continued as a standard practice in some applications until at least the 1970s and continues to this day in private art press work. So "sort" as a bit of printer jargon to refer to an individual type, while it may not be familiar to the average worker in the printing trades today, is still familiar to us old farts. (Whether "out of sorts" truly traces to an empty compartment in a type case or something else, I'll leave to the lexicographers.)

  12. Sid Smith said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 3:04 am

    I'd also wonder about the antiquity of 'out of' meaning 'lacking'. Feels pretty modern to me.

  13. Margaret L said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 5:28 am

    Also interesting is that conventions for balloon dialog apparently weren't yet settled. The most natural order of events would seem to be the boss saying "Thunderation – late going to press again," followed by "Out of sorts" etc., followed by "Did you look in the bag?" In a cartoon today these would be placed in vertically ordered sub-balloons.

    Readers of the time may have been used to working out the correct order of things, much as we still do today for physical events happening in a panel that aren't really simultaneous.

  14. ajay said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 5:50 am

    Margaret :: I don't know, I didn't have a problem – starting at the top left and moving down and right seems fairly automatic for English speakers, and that's how they've ordered it.

    The Font of All Knowledge ( )

    The Font of All Knowledge is, of course, Times.

  15. Max said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 9:19 am

    ajay: Margaret is saying that the order is top left, moving down, then moving up again, then moving right (the typesetter's speech comes in the middle of the boss's)

  16. wally said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 9:42 am

    "hand composition continued as a standard practice until at least the 1970s "

    when I took a semester of print shop back in 1963 that is what we did, tho my mother was aghast that I was spending any time learning a technology that was clearly on the way out.

  17. Morten Jonsson said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 9:43 am

    @Sid Smith

    That isn't hard to check.

    "Ay, but these English are shrowdly out of Beefe."
    –Shakespeare, Henry V

    "If they be in poverty . . . yet they shall not be . . . cleane out of cash."
    Zachary Bogan, Meditations of the Mirth of a Christian Life (1653)

    "He returned not long since, out of money, and out at elbows."
    Washington Irving, Bracebridge Hall

  18. Ellen K. said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 9:51 am

    @Ajay, I think Margaret is right. You have to read part of the first balloon, part of the second one, then the rest of the first balloon, then the rest of the 2nd. It makes more sense that way then reading the whole first balloon, then the whole 2nd one.

    @Margaret, thank. The comic makes so much more sense now.

  19. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 9:54 am

    Letterpress printing is still alive and well as a hobby. Here's a link that even includes an oblique reference to "out of sorts."

  20. Daniel said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 10:44 am

    @John Rothe: The cartoon dates from 1927, and was in the Inland Printer, one of the premier printing trade journals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I'm sure the cartoonist was well experienced with the hand-setting of type. That was only obsolete at the time with respect to the setting of large amounts of text for newspapers and books but not for job printing. And anyone involved the printing trade (and even many people who weren't and took printing in high school) would have learned to hand set type.

    @Faldone: the cartoon is presumably of small town newspaper (in the days the wuz) and the bag labeled sorts presumably is indeed of type carelessly shoved in a bag. The compositor is probably out of cap I's in the type cases whereupon the editor asks him if he's looked in the bag.

  21. DEP said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 10:49 am

    Just sharing this humorous account of the origin of "Out of Sorts," from 1866, which also contains a lot of typesetter lore.

  22. Cameron said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    The word "thunderation" reminded me of when I took German many years ago. A text that we had been set to read included the German exclamation "Donnerwetter!" and the teacher explained that this meant thunderstorm (literally thunder weather), but that the word did double duty as a mild exclamation. She suggested the translations "My word!" or "Good Heavens!". I pointed out that there did exist an English exclamation "Thunderation!" but that it was distinctly old-fashioned sounding. My teacher (who was not a native English speaker) did not know that word and was delighted that there was such a precise translation, since apparently the German "Donnerwetter!" is also somewhat old-fashioned sounding.

  23. F said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

    OED dates "out of sorts" back to 1621:
    "1621 S. Ward Life of Faith 46, I see one..that knowes all must worke for the best, to be at any time out of tune, or out of sorts."
    and the typographical sense of "sort" only back to 1668.

  24. wally said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 3:52 pm


    One of my favorite Bach chorales is "O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort"
    O eternity you thunder word

  25. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

    Can anyone explain the actual joke? What do capital Ls have to do with a congressman's speech?

  26. Daniel said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 6:13 pm

    @Mr Fnortner: They are capital I's.

  27. Martha said,

    November 1, 2012 @ 11:26 pm

    Thank you for explaining the order of the dialogue! The cartoon made absolutely no sense to me before I understood the order!

  28. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 2, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    English orthography 1, Mr Fnortner 0.

  29. ajay said,

    November 6, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

    Ah, I see – I misread Margaret. Yes, that makes a lot more sense.

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