Logogram or Logotype, but Logo is out

You know how I research words as best I can so that I don’t put anachronistic words into the mouths of my 19th-century characters? Well, I’ve been doing it again. If you’ve read this blog over the years you will know I sometimes talk about words I can’t use because they weren’t in general usage in 1888 to 1892 when my series are set, words like okay, paperwork, acerbic, or even acidic. If I’m not sure, I go and look the word up in a dictionary or use the online one which tells me when the word was first found in printed material. That’s usually a reasonably accurate indication of when the word was also spoken, but there are things to bear in mind. A) words are often spoken for a while before they are accepted into a dictionary, so the date shown is probably slightly earlier, and B) this online dictionary has a bent towards when the word was first used in America, and the date might be slightly different for Britain.


I was writing a chapter for ‘Where There’s a Will,’ and one of the clues involved the publisher’s logo on the spine of a book. Logo…? Off I go to look it up, and sure enough, it was hardly used until the 1950s. I can’t use logo, but these things must have had other names, so I turned to a friend of mine who knows about such things and this is how the email exchange went.

‘What was a publisher’s logo called before the word logo came about, any idea?’ I asked, and clarified with, ‘The Penguin symbol on penguin books, for example, is there a better or older word for one of those things, other than logo? I think they were called logograms or logotypes, and logo is an abbreviation – just wondered if you knew of any other word for them.’

My books don’t have a logo

This was his reply.

Interesting question, to which I don’t actually know the answer.

I know the word logotype has a specific history in printing. It was something printers used to save time when making up common words. Typesetting was all about making up text from individual letters cast in metal or made of wood. Some bright spark hit on the idea that for certain common words it would be quicker to cast the whole word as one piece of metal or wood. For example, in newspaper printing, the word that made up the paper’s title on the front page could be cast as one big block of text. And these word blocks were called logotypes.

But the modern concept of the logo symbol really goes back to heraldry and beyond. People had their crests and devices, and shops and inns had their signs.

So my guess would be that in the 19th century, people would refer to signs, devices, crests, symbols, marks, and that kind of thing. Goldsmiths and silversmiths had marks which were stamped on their wares. With the advent of industrial-scale advertising, you get companies like Coco Cola designing their name in a specific font that would have been cast as logotypes for printing purposes. The Coca-Cola logo is a word and therefore originated as an authentic logotype.

From my shelves

But I don’t think the word logotype would have been in common use outside of printing circles in the 19th century, and ordinary people would have referred to anything that was a symbolic representation of a trade, product, organisation, person, as a crest, or a device, or a sign, or a mark, as appropriate. Possibly symbol. You don’t really get the catch-all word “logo” until major advertising takes off in the early 20th century. And as you say, it was probably the abbreviated form of logotype getting into popular use, because these symbols would have been cast as a single block for printing.

I think these days they differentiate between logotype, still basically a word block, and logogram, which is a symbol. The Penguin would be a logogram. Since the company was founded in the 1930s the word used for the symbol would have been logo or logogram.

Well, I found it interesting. I also had to find another way to describe what my character was seeing, because even the self-educated genius, Will Merrit, would not have used the word logogram.

More books in the study – I need more shelves!

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