S | Cutchogue, New York

© Sophie W. Smith

Joined October 2012

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S (named ess /ˈɛs/, plural esses) is the 19th letter in the modern English alphabet and the ISO basic Latin alphabet.
Semitic Šîn (“teeth”) represented a voiceless postalveolar fricative /ʃ/ (as in ‘ship’). Greek did not have this sound, so the Greek Sigma (Σ) came to represent /s/. In Etruscan and Latin the /s/ value was maintained, and only in modern languages has the letter been used to represent other sounds.

Long s[edit]
The minuscule form of ‘s’ was ‘ſ’, called the long s, up to the fourteenth century or so, and the form ‘S’ was used then only as uppercase in the same manner that the forms ‘G’ and ‘A’ are only uppercase. With the introduction of printing, the modern form ‘s’ began to be used at the end of words by some printers. Later, it was used everywhere in print and eventually spread to manuscript letters as well. For example, “sinfulness” would be rendered as “ſinfulneſſ” in all medieval hands, and later it was “ſinfulneſs” in some blackletter hands and in print. The modern spelling “sinfulness” did not become widespread in print until the beginning of the 19th century, largely to prevent confusion of ‘ſ’ with the lowercase ‘f’ in typefaces which had a very short horizontal stroke in their lowercase ‘f’. The ligature of ‘ſs’ (or ‘ſz’) became the German Eszett, ‘ß’.

It is commonly believed that it was the London printer John Bell (1745–1831) who popularized the modern “round s”, in place of the elongated ‘ſ’, although exactly when he did this is unclear. In his multivolume series, The British Theatre, he began using the short form instead of the elongated letter circa 1785, not entirely at first but in later years more and more consistently. His edition of Shakespeare, in 1785, was advertised with the claim that he “ventured to depart from the common mode by rejecting the long ‘ſ’ in favor of the round one, as being less liable to error…..” In the field of more ephemeral publications, Bell began a London newspaper called The World, of which it has been said that a “vital change … first made in The World, entitled No. 1 of that paper (for Monday, January 1, 1787) to be chronicled in any kalendar of typographical progress: the abolition of the long ‘ſ’….” Bell may have popularized it, but he did not invent it; in his letter of March 26, 1786 to Francis Childs, Benjamin Franklin wrote “the Round s …. begins to be the Mode, and in nice printing the Long ‘ſ’ is rejected entirely.” Read more

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