Printing and Metaphor

William Ged was an Edinburgh goldsmith. In 1729 he endeavoured to push an alternative process of printing, on which he had been working since 1725, by joining in partnership with a London capitalist. An edition of Sallust’s Histories and two prayer-books (for Cambridge University) were printed by him. However, difficulties with his both his financier and workmen forced him to return to Edinburgh and resume his former profession. The process Ged had set in motion was continued by French printer and typefounder Fimin Didot, who introduced the term stereotyping in the jargon to indicate a new printing process which he patented in 1797. The word is derived from the Greek words stereos (= firm, solid), and typos (= impression); hence: solid impression.

A stereotype is a solid plate or type-metal, cast from a plaster mould taken from the surface of a forme of type. Such copies were made when subsequent printings of a text were anticipated by the publishers, freeing the costly type for other work. In fact, cliché and stereotype were both originally French printers’ words, and synonymous in their literal meanings. It has been suggested (and contended) that cliché is an onomatopoeic word for the sound that is made during the stereotyping process when the matrix hit molten metal (known as ‘dabbing’ in English). The process revolutionized the book trade by. It opened the way for mass production and cheap editions. The invention was driven by the exploding popularity of the novel. Printers had to learn to look ahead and ‘play’ the market. If they did not accurately predict sales, they were forced into the expense of resetting type for subsequent editions. Stereotyping solved that problem.

Over time, the printing stereotype became a metaphor for any set of ideas repeated identically, en bloc, with minor changes. In 1922, Walter Lippmann published his book on Public Opinion. He was the first to use the term in its contemporary psychological sense, calling a stereotype a ‘picture in our heads’. Nowadays, we interpret stereotypes as mental concepts which govern perception and offer a functional and economic way of ordering reality. However, when economy degrades into simplification, stereotypes become pathological vehicles for prejudice. Generalizations limit our perceptions and there is therefore an ambiguity in stereotyping. At a group or national level, stereotypes provide a sense of social belonging and cohesion. By the same token, such perceptions are selective, based on prior assumptions, and hence distorted. They are to be treated with suspicion because they can be used to discredit certain groups or nations, or falsely promote others. As such, they have a prejudicial effect on individuals and groups alike.