The Letter M
By Allan Haley
Historians tell us that our current M started out as the Egyptian hieroglyph for “owl.” Over thousands of years, this simple line drawing was further distilled into the hieratic symbol for the ‘em’ sound. Eventually, the great-grandparent of our M looked a bit like a handwritten ‘m’ balanced on the tip of one stroke.
The Phoenicians called the letter mem. It’s easy to see that the Phoenician mem is based on the Egyptian hieratic symbol, and that it’s the forerunner of the thirteenth letter of our alphabet. The mem looked much like our two-bumped lowercase ‘m’ with an added tail at the end.
The Greek mu evolved from the Phoenician mem. The Greeks further simplified the letter and, in the process, converted the soft, round shapes into angular strokes.
The Etruscans and then the Romans adopted the Greek form, but neither made substantial changes to the shape or proportions of the character. Sometime in the third or fourth century A.D. the rounded lowercase ‘m’ began to appear, but it was almost lost in later centuries. In medieval writing, it became common practice to place a stroke over the preceding letter instead of writing the ‘m’ (probably because ‘m’ is one of the more time-consuming letters to write).
The Romans also pressed the M and six other letters – I, X, V, L, C, and D – into double-duty as their numerals, and gave M the honor of standing in for the highest value, 1,000.
- Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs. He is also responsible for editorial content for the company’s type libraries and Web sites.
- Prior to working for Monotype, Mr. Haley was Principal of Resolution, a consulting firm with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He was also executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.
- Mr. Haley is ex officio Chairman of the Board of the Society of Typographic Aficionados, and past President of the New York Type Directors Club. He is highly regarded as an educator and is a frequently requested speaker at national computer and design conferences.
- Mr. Haley is also a prolific writer, with five books on type and graphic communication and hundreds of articles for graphic design publications to his credit.