What Are All of Those "f" Characters Doing Where "s" Should Be?
When I Read Eighteenth Century Books I Sound Like Sylvester The Cat

By Bob Sullivan

As a sutler selling eighteenth century printed material, one of the most asked questions I receive is, "Why did they use "f" instead of "s"? Well, good reader, it is not an "f". It is an ancient Saxon character called an "eth" character. The eth character made its appearance in printed matter until the start of the nineteenth century and remains in handwriting examples well into the nineteenth century.

The eth character is used almost in place of every "s" character in a word except for the last letter. There is a simple reason for this. If used at the end of a word, the character would generate another pronounceable syllable. The word "leads" would become "leadeth." If you can get an older version of the Bible, such as the King James Version (originally printed in Saxon England), you will see examples of the eth character all through it. For example, from the twenty-third psalm: "He leadeth me beside still water...He restoreth my soul." No long using the eth character, we would say today: "He leads me beside still water...He restores my soul."

There are exceptions to this "every 's' but the last one" rule. Often, you will see a normal "s" character appear due to a particular phonic condition. For example, if a word breaks across line, and the syllable at the break ends with an "s", you will often see a normal "s" at the end of the line, instead of an eth character. For example, you would probably see the word, "distribution," if broken after the first syllable, printed as dis-tribution, as opposed to dif-tribution. But then again, you may not. A great deal depended upon the individual whim of the printer.

The use of the eth character remained in force until the close of the eighteenth century. Because it disappears so fast, I have jokingly referred to some sort of international printing convention in 1800 that banned the use of the eth character. It is rare to find the eth character in documents printed from 1800 to 1810, and by the time of the War of 1812, the printed eth character has all but faded into history.

Copyright © 1998 Bob Sullivan. All rights reserved.