Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I’ve recently been reading Mastering Type: The Essential Guide to Typography for Print and Web Design, which is an amazingly engaging book on the interesting subject of typography and graphic design.

Well, last night, I was reading the section about kerning, the subtle adjustment of the spacing between individual pairs of letters, I found this gem stashed away in a picture caption:

In the comic book world, the word flick was banned from use for fear that when set in all uppercase letters, the L and I would run together and form an unacceptable word. (Batman Unmasked, Will Brooker, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001, p. 63) Take care that any word being kerned does not kern so tightly that it forms another word. 1

Put more visually:

Flick properly and poorly kerned

This prohibition makes more sense in the comic world than elsewhere, given that comic captions are often both hand-written and set in all caps, but still, this is the first instance I’ve heard of a word being banned outright based not on meaning or usage, but based solely on the potential for visual confusability with another naughty word. The lengths that we’ll go to to avoid taboos is absolutely fascinating.

Although this particular overlap may seem isolated or unlikely, poor kerning (“keming”2) resulting in unintentionally dirty (or hilarious) words is not all that uncommon (to be fair, some of these are spacing and tracking issues instead, but they’re still quite funny).

So, we must all band together, space our letters properly, and with a thunderous shout cry “FLICK BAD KERNING”!

  1. Excerpt from caption of Ch. 4, Fig. 12 of Bosler, D. (2012). Mastering type: The essential guide to typography for print and web design. Cincinnati, Ohio: How Books.

  2. Coined by David Friedman in 2008, “keming” is defined as “the result of improper kerning”, a playful visual pun on the fact that a lowercase rn combo, when poorly kerned, looks like a lowercase “m”, and one of my absolute favorite words.


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