The Letter Q
By Allan Haley
For as long as there have been Qs, designers have been having fun with the letter’s tail. This opportunity for typographic playfulness may even date back to the Phoenicians: the original ancestor of our Q was called “ooph,” the Phoenician word for monkey. The ooph represented an emphatic guttural sound not found in English, or in any Indo-European language.
Most historians believe that the ooph, which also went by the name “gogh,” originated in the Phoenician language, with no lineage to previous written forms. Historians also believe that the character’s shape depicted the back view of a person’s head, with the tail representing the neck or throat. It’s possible, but if you consider that the letter’s name meant monkey, then perhaps the round part of the symbol represents another kind of backside, and the tail of what became our Q may have started out as, well, a tail.
The Greeks adopted the ooph, but found it difficult to pronounce, and changed it slightly to “koppa.” The Greeks also modified the design by stopping the vertical stroke, or tail, at the outside of the circle. The koppa, however, represented virtually the same sound as “kappa,” another Greek letter. One of them had to go, and koppa was ultimately the loser, perhaps because it had begun to look much like another Greek letter, the P.
Unlike the Greeks, the Etruscans could live with the somewhat redundant nature of the koppa, and continued to use the letter. In fact, they had two other k-sound letters to contend with. The Romans elected to use all three signs when they adopted much of the Etruscan alphabet.
The first Roman Q had the Etruscan vertical tail, but over time it evolved into the graceful curved shape that cradles the U which usually follows it.
- 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.