Long S
Cover page of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, published in 1667, photo courtesy of Wikipedia > Long S.

History of the letter S

The letter S originated with the Semitic letter shin, meaning “teeth” or “sharp”, perhaps inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyph for “tusk”. The symbol for shin looks somewhat like a W, with an upper dot or tittle to distinguish the s-sound from the sh-sound.

The Greeks turned the symbol on its side, to create the letter sigma (Σ, σ) for the s-sound.

Prior to 1500s, the lower-case letter s in Roman print was a “long s” similar to a lower-case f or a tusk. In medieval hand, the words look a little strange to us.

bleff = bless

bleffedneff = blessedness

When printing came into use after the mid-1400s, a rounded s was often placed at the end of words.

blefs = bless

bleffednefs = blessedness

To distinguish between the letters f and long s, the rounded s form that we know today began to be used everywhere, from the mid-1700s to early-1800s.

blessedness

The long s remained as a symbol for shillings in Britain, although it morphed into a slash.

£6/10 (six pounds, 10 shillings)

 

Note: This blog post is an excerpt from a book, “English Manual: Letter by Letter,” to be published in 2016.

One thought on “S is for Sharp, Shin, and Sigma

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