The Fourteenth Letter — N

M and N have always had a close association. While the Egyptian for water, and the “wave” pictograph could clearly be connected to “M,” the letterform “N” also had the same root. In Phoenician it was called “nun,” and meant fish. The early wavy line was reduced somewhat to keep it distinct from the wavy “mem” character. The Greeks borrowed it and changed the name to “nu,” but never had a clue that it meant “fish. Eventually the Greeks made the letter symmetrical, and the later Romans took it over with no changes.

The “N” is a medium-width letter, and in typography the “en-space” is between the size of the wider “em-space,” and the much thinner “thin-space.” Typically the width of the majority of the letters is based on the width of the letter “N.”

Like the “H”, the “N” requires a relationship between its three elements that will make it optically stable. The verticals should appear to be unified by the diagonal, rather than merely joined. The heritage of the flat tipped brush or quill gives stress to the diagonal stroke, but optics require that this part of the letter not appear too heavy. For the same reason the thin strokes of the “N” are just slightly heavier than in most other places in the alphabet. Subtle variances in weight determine the difference between right and wrong in the letter “N.”

The classic Trajan “N” has a pointed apex at the bottom, and this is reflected in dozens of Roman-like typefaces.

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

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