The Sixth Letter — F

It would at first appear that the letter ‘F’ would have at least a family connection with its neighbor, the letter ‘E’. Such is not the case. In fact the letter ‘F’ is connected to the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph cerastes, meaning a horned snake, or at least resembling a sea-serpent. Lots of changes from its 3000 B.C. beginning, because in time, the snake-like thing turned into a squiggle with a knot on top. Finally, the latter Egyptian symbol was no more than a single stroke with a crossbar (like our small ‘t’).

To the Phoenicians this symbol looked a bit like a nail, and so they called it “waw“, meaning nail or hook. The sound was similar to our ‘w’ sound in the word “know”. Although at times they also used it for the ‘V’ sound.

At first the Greeks liked the waw sound but found the 22 letters limit too confining and so split some of the double sounding letters into two separate shapes, keeping the ’W’ and leaving the “F” to create the ancestor to the ‘V’ character. The ‘W’ became the diagamma, constructed by placing one gamma upon another. Unfortunately, this confusion of different letter shapes continued for a time, but when the smoke cleared the diagamma was missing. The ‘V’ sound character remained but did not find much use in the Greek language.

The Etruscans loved this ‘V’ sound, and used it extensively, and when the Romans picked it up, they adapted it for their softened ‘V’ or ‘double-vee’ sound. And in some languages today (esp. German) the ‘V’ letter is still used for some ‘F’ words such as vater (father).


 An “F” could be described as an “E” with a missing stroke—but that would be an oversimplification. True, it is drawn much the same as the “E”. It is about half the width of the letter “M”, its center stroke is normally just slightly shorter than the top; and it is placed a little above the mathematical center of the character height.

The “F” however, presents a problem to the designer that is not present in the “E”: it is asymmetrical and top-heavy. As a result, many times a few subtle changes will be incorporated into this character, which separate it from its three-armed brethren. Sometimes the middle horizontal is slightly shorter or placed a little higher than its counterpart in the “E”. And sometimes, in serifed designs, the base of the vertical stroke has the benefit of a slight flair, where the same in the “E” may even taper.

With credit to Allen Haley,
Upper & Lower Case magazine, a typographic centered publication last published from 1970 to 1999.

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