'Calligraphy': synonyms and historical terms

Calligraphy synonyms are few but interesting.

As discussed elsewhere on this site, the word 'calligraphy' itself is pretty recent, having been coined in English from Greek elements in approximately 1600.

The useable synonyms I've found are:

  • penmanship (implies a bit of showing off)
  • chirography (strictly, just a fancy word for 'handwriting')
  • fair writing (a bit old-fashioned, but a proper synonym)
  • lettering (note that this also has a precise meaning which differs from 'calligraphy')
  • formal hand (refers to handwriting carefully formed, as for presentation pieces)

Below, I go into much more depth on each of these and quite a few more.

Old terms for calligraphic writing: Jerome's 'litterae uncialis ... ut vulgo aiunt'

This refers to a passage by Jerome (342–347 AD), the celebrated translator of biblical texts who produced the Latin Vulgate. In his introduction to the Book of Job, he says, in a somewhat snobbish manner (if you ask me):

Habeant qui volunt veteres libros vel in membranis purpureis auro argentoque descriptos, vel uncialibus, ut vulgo aiunt, litteris onera magis exarata quam codices, dum mihi meisque permittant pauperes habere scidulas et non tam pulchros codices quam emendatos.

Biblia Sacra iuxta vulgatam versionem, ed. R. Weber O. S. B. (Stuttgart, 1975), I, p. 732.

Various scholars have debated what precisely 'litterae uncialis (ut vulgo aiunt)' might mean. Literally, of course, they are 'uncial letters' ... but Jerome is not obviously using the term to distinguish 'uncial' from any other style of calligraphic writing.

I'm not sure any other style of calligraphic writing existed in Latin at the time, except Roman capitals written onto the page (which were laborious, and rarely used).

I like this article from 1916, which makes a case for Jerome contrasting his own simple but correct writings with both (a) highly decorated manuscripts and (b) manuscripts written in fancy uncial letters.

The passage about uncials by Jerome is paraphrased in English by Elmer Truesdell Merrill, the article's author, as:

'Let others enjoy, if they will, the old magnificence of writing in gold or silver on purple vellum, or the newer-fangled fashionable elegance of books in 'uncial' characters (as they are popularly called), if only they will leave me my simpler style, and texts that may make up in correctness what they lack in beauty.'

A closer translation, by Kevin P. Edgecomb, is:

'Let whoever will to keep the old books, either written on purple skins with gold and silver, or in uncial letters, as they commonly say, loads [burdens] of writing rather than books, while they leave to me and mine to have poor little leaves and not such beautiful books as correct ones.'

That is, Jerome uses 'litterae uncialis' (and let's not forget his 'ut vulgo aiunt', 'as they commonly say') to describe a style of Bible-writing that should be understood as an equivalent or alternative to 'gold and silver letters on purple pages', ie as a species of grande luxe in its own right.

To me, it sounds as though 'litterae uncialis' might have been commonly used in the fourth century AD to mean 'fancily/beautifully written letters' ... ie 'calligraphy' as we would now call it.

16th–17th-century calligraphy synonyms: 'fair writing'

At the time 'calligraphy' was coined, the common existing synonym was:

fair writing

(where 'fair' means 'fine-looking, beautiful', rather than 'acceptable, moderate').

This term was already used, and continued to be used, by various writing-masters, pen-men and other educators during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to refer to handwriting as an art, including (but not limited to):

Richard Gething (1585–1652), Calligraphotechnia or The Art of faire writing sett forth and newly enlarged by Ri(chard) Gethinge M(aste)r in the said Art dwelling in Fetter-lane, at the hand and Penne (I had to include that last bit – under what other sign could a calligraphotechnician possibly be living? – talk about hanging out one's shingle)

John Davies (1565?–1618), The writing schoolemaster or The anatomy of faire writing. Wherein is exactlie expressed each severall character. Together with other rules and documents coincident to the art of faire & speedy writing

William Panke, A Most Breefe, Easie and Plaine Receite for Faire Writing (London, 1591)

Edward, Cocker, The Pens Transcendence or Fair Writings Labyrinth, Wherein Faire Writing to the Life's exprest / In sundry copies, cloth'd with Art's rich Vest. / By which with Practice thou mayst gain Perfection, / As th'Heaven-raught Author did without direction (1657)

John Newton, The countrey school-master, or, The art of teaching fair-writing, and all the useful parts of practical-arithmetick in a school-method. To which is added some fair Greek copies for the use of grammar-schools. All engraven in copper-plates (Rob Walton, 1673) (Again, I had to include the last note: a period example of the usage giving rise to 'copperplate' as a name for a style of handwriting)

and others such as Martin Billingsley in the exordium to his own manual on handwriting, The Pens Excellencie or The Secretaries Delight (1618).

17th-century calligraphy synonyms: 'chirography', 'penmanship'

Just half a century after the word 'calligraphy' appeared in English, we see the first word often listed in dictionaries today as a calligraphy synonym:


(1650s) 'handwriting, the art of writing by hand'; from Greek chiro, 'hand', and graphy, writing

It's curious that only two generations after 'calligraphy' was coined to mean 'beautiful (hand-)writing', another fancy Greek term should be adopted into English to signify almost the same thing. But, looking closer, it's not an exact synonym: 'chirography' doesn't necessarily mean 'beautiful handwriting'. The term is fancy; the writing itself, one supposes, might not be. 'Chirography' really is just an ostentatiously learned way of saying 'handwriting', pure and simple.

'Chirography' also really hammers home the point that the concept in question is 'handwriting not print: ABSOLUTELY NOT PRINT'. And it can mean, further, 'the study of handwriting and of how to write by hand'. (Not to be confused with 'palaeography' which is 'the study of ancient handwriting'.)

Later again, we find another coining – a closer synonym for 'calligraphy' – this time constructed out of English elements, not Greek:


(1690s) 'use of a pen (to write well), (quality of) handwriting'; from the older word 'penman', and '-ship', meaning 'the quality of being [something]'.

The seventeenth century saw the rise and rise of writing-masters. I imagine these new words helped competing instructors to distinguish themselves from each other and the teachers of the past. A (relatively) up-to-date jargon is useful for signalling that what you are doing is new, trending, and therefore desirable – nah fam this is 1695 penmanship, forget that 'chirography' shit your grandpa learnt as a boy.

'Penmanship' connotes highly visible performance, artistry, even of showing off to an audience: think of similarly constructed words such as 'showmanship', 'statesmanship', 'one-upmanship', 'brinkmanship', 'salesmanship', 'horsemanship', 'gamesmanship'. See what I mean? Compared with the classical overtones of 'calligraphy', 'penmanship' feels a bit wide-boy. Which tbh it probably was. You should hear Martin Billingsley's opinions about London's 'pen-men'.

Still, it's closer to a synonym for 'calligraphy' than 'chirography' is.

Edward Johnston on a mission: synonyms for 'writing that should be beautiful'

After 'penmanship', I have the impression that not much happens in calligraphy-synonyms-land for a while.

So I went looking in Edward Johnston, as he's the next big name to revive an interest in calligraphy with his Writing and Illuminating, and Lettering (1906).

Johnston uses the greatest number of writing-lettering-and-calligraphy synonyms in the smallest space that I have ever seen or could very well imagine. In just over three pages I found (emboldening is mine, all other typographic features are Johnston's):

"Much would be gained by substituting, generally, WRITING for designing, because writing being the medium by which our letters have been evolved, the use of the pen—essentially the letter-making tool—gives a practical insight into the construction of letters attainable in no other way. The most important use of letters is in the making of books, and the foundations of typography and book decoration may be mastered—as they were laid—by the planning, writing and illuminating of MSS. [manuscripts] in book form ....

"And though calligraphy is a means to many ends, a fine MS. [manuscript] has a beauty of its own that—if two arts may be compared—surpasses that of the finest printing .... And furthermore as the old-fashioned notion that a legible hand is a mark of bad breeding dies out, it may be that our current handwriting will take legibility and beauty from such practice ....

"Magnificent as are the dreams of a fine Decoration based on lettering, the innumerable practical applications of LETTERING itself make the study of Letter-Craft not only desirable but imperative ....

"Yet Ordinary Writing and even scribbling has had, and still might have, a good influence on the art of the Letter maker, and at least the common use of pen, ink, & paper makes it a simple matter for any one to essay a formal [hand] or 'book' hand. A broad nib cut to give clean thick and thin strokes (without appreciable variation of pressure) will teach any one who cares to learn, very clearly and certainly .... As 'copy book' hands simple, primitive pen forms—such as the Uncial and Half-Uncial—afford the best training ... and the ultimate development of a lively and personal penmanship ...."

Clearly, to Johnston – a man with a mission, if ever there was one – 'writing' is always 'handwriting', and best used to produce manuscripts (literally, 'handwrittens' – from Latin 'manus', meaning 'hand', and 'script', meaning 'written').

Further, Johnston thought 'handwriting' always ought to be beautiful, because making things beautiful seems to have been his rationale for making things at all:

"And if we would be more than amateurs, we must study and practise the making of beautiful THINGS and thereby gain experience of Tools, Materials, and Methods. For it is certain that we must teach ourselves how to make beautiful things, and must have some notion of the aim and bent of our work, of what we seek and what we do."

Here's a list of the synonyms for (beautiful) (hand-) writing that Johnston uses in the passages quoted above, with my own rough interpretation of the different nuances of each as he seems to use them in his introduction:

writing: forming letters by hand using a pen (expanding the usual idea of 'writing' from 'ordinary handwriting for everyday purposes' to something potentially larger and grander).

use of the pen: writing, as above, but with the concept very clearly spelt out.

letter-making: forming letters by any means but, implicitly, most naturally with a pen because, as Johnston sees it, the pen is the foremost letter-making tool.

calligraphy: handwritten text consciously made beautiful in form and layout.

hand: a person's own, characteristic handwriting, or 'fist'.

handwriting: the kind of writing typically produced by hand; note, Johnston distinguishes between 'handwriting – which has potential to be beautiful' and 'current handwriting', 'ordinary handwriting', etc.

lettering: production of letters by hand using a pen but not necessarily limited to calligraphy with a broad-edged nib.

letter-craft: lettering as a set of skills and techniques, the term formulated to sound a bit Ye Olde Englisshe: very Arts & Crafts Movement. (In Old English, by the way, I suppose 'calligraphy' could have been 'stæfcræft', which is quite zingy. On the other hand (checking her OE dictionary) I find 'stæfcræft' also meant 'grammar', and 'learning, study' more generally, which detracts from the zinginess a tad.)

ordinary writing: everyday handwriting and everyday lettering as found on signs, notices etc; Johnston believes ordinary handwriting can be elevated to calligraphy through knowledge and practice.

scribbling: hurried, thoughtless or carefree everyday handwriting.

formal hand: careful, consciously formed handwriting for display or other formal use or effect.

book hand: formal hand suitable for use in a book: so, in an age of print, also highly legible.

'copy book' hand: practice handwriting towards a formal or book hand: Johnston gives uncial and half-uncial as examples, because they are early in the evolution of handwriting and therefore, in his view, primitive and suitable as starting-points for learning.

penmanship: brisk, beautiful, able handwriting – the handwriting of one who is educated and practised in what handwriting really is and can be.


Johnston, Edward, Writing & Illuminating, & Lettering (London, 1906)

Merrill, Elmer Truesdell, The 'Uncial' in Jerome and Lupus, Classical Philology 11:4 (October, 1916), pp. 452–457

Meynell, Sir Francis, RDI, 'Edward Cocker according to Cocker' (The Society for Italic Handwriting, 2009) (accessed 29 March 2021)

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