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A Glossary of Calligraphy Terminology

A Glossary of Calligraphy Terminology

It’s important for new calligraphers to familiarise themselves with some calligraphy terminology. Without getting too technical into the anatomy of typography for the different parts of a letter, here are a few words from a more common language you may hear graphic designers, calligraphers and hand letterers use.


Ascender: Part of letters that extend above the main writing line (ie. h, l, k).

Baseline: The invisible line on which letters sit.

Blotting Paper: A porous paper used to blot text written with ink so that it dries quicker and doesn't bleed.

Bookhand: A general term for scripts or alphabets used prior to the printing of books.

Broad-edged: Refers to nibs with a broad or chisel edge.

Cap Height: The invisible line that marks the height of a capital letter.

Copperplate: An alphabet hand or styles. Learn more here.

Counter: The shape created on the inside of a letter.

Deboss: To create a downward indentation.

Descender: Part of letters that extend below the main writing line (ie. g, y, p).

Downstroke: The part of the pen stroke when the nib moves downward. Often, extra pressure is added to the downstroke to create thicker strokes.

Drop Cap: A design style where the first capital letter of a paragraph is set in a larger point size. Normally seen in old books and used to indicate the start of a new section of text, such as a chapter.

Emboss: To create a raised indentation.

Flourish: Added strokes or swirls used to decorate letters.

Font: A digital file of a typeface. 

Hairline: The thinnest stroke made with the pen.

Kerning: The horizontal spacing between two individual characters.

Leading: The spacing between horizontal lines of text.

Letterform: The form or shape of a letter.

Manuscript: A book or document written by hand.

Majuscules: Capital letters.

Minuscules: Lowercase letters.

Monoline: Letters written with a single width of stroke the entire way through.

Nib: The tip of a pen. The nib can be attached to a pen or a separate piece which is then inserted into the holder.

Point Size: The common way of measuring type. The distance from the top of the highest ascender to the bottom of the lowest descender in points, the unit of measurement.

Sans-Serif: A letter is a sans-serif if it does not have a serif at the end of a letter’s stroke. Sans, means without. Sans-serif faces lend a clean, simple appearance to documents, perfect for digital design.

Serif: Small decorative strokes added to the end of a letter's main strokes. Serifs improve readability on printed documents as they lead the eye along a line of type.

Stroke: A line or mark made with a pen or brush.

Tracking: The uniform amount of spacing between characters in an entire section of text (ie. a sentence, line, paragraph).

Typeface: A design of an alphabet where letters have been crafted in a similar style to work together.

Upstroke: The movement of the pen in an upward stroke. These strokes are generally thin, hairline strokes.

X-height: The height of a typeface’s lowercase letters—straight-edged top and bottom, the height of a lowercase letter ’x’ is perfect to measure, hence, it’s name.

Weight: The relative thickness of the characters in the various typefaces within a type family (ie. thin, light, bold, extra-bold, and black).

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