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Here a pica, there a paper

A CHAP who does a ``column'' very well for one of our less-than-international newspapers likes to write now and then about the business of writing his column, and while it spares him a search for better material, it makes me reflect that columns are not really columns nowadays. The word derives from early newspapering, when the standard page had seven columns, each 13 picas wide. After mechanical typesetting came along, most city papers went to 12-pica columns, but out in the country the weeklies stayed pretty much as they were for many years. Pica is a printer's measure, as cross word puzzles still remind us, and six picas make an inch. Printers always measured everything in points and picas; a point being one-twelfth of a pica. I remember a printer who made a screen for his porch, and he said it didn't fit until he planed off two points.

Columns on other pages were broken up between reading matter and advertising, but the editorial page wouldn't brook this commercial taint, so everything there ran full columns deep. This was homage to the high thoughts and sly suggestions of the ``sanctum,'' and although the content may differ now, it is good that this homage is retained. First, top left of the editorial page, was the masthead. Now and then today you may hear the newspaper's name across the front page called a masthead, but that's wrong - the paper's name is a ``logohead.'' The masthead on the edit page gave the name of the newspaper and its editor and publisher, location and address, and usually the subscription and advertising rates. The word derives from seafaring - the top of a vessel's mast, the point of the lookout. Then, under the masthead, came the ``boss editorial.''

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Nowadays editors seem to like ``lead editorial,'' but that's the boss editorial, and in older times editors went to great efforts to find new ways to heap scurrility on the competition and to accuse the opposite political party of infamy and high treason. Bill Nye had a story about the time he labored long into the night to bring his calumny to a new peak of beauty, and his incompetent printer ``locked up'' an irrelevant birth notice in the middle of his boss editorial and substantially reduced the effect.

Bill also told about the time he and his competition editor were spank in the middle of their finest vitriolic abuse of each other, a feud that had been going on for some time and that pulled no verbal punches and gave no quarter. Then his competition editor came into Bill's office with a curious request. His credit had faltered and he couldn't borrow enough money to get his shipment of paper out of the express office, and consequently was unable to bring out his edition.

He showed Bill Nye the dandy boss editorial he had ready to print if he only could. It was indeed a magnificent piece of early American editorial slander. It called Bill Nye everything from a flea-bitten ignoramus and degenerate pipsqueak right up to the world's most accomplished liar, after which it went on to even better insults. Nye was much impressed. It was a fine piece of writing. So Nye gave his competitor enough paper to bring out his edition, and thus this jewel of a boss editorial was saved and may be hunted down in the museums and libraries.

After an editor had vented his scorn, the rest of an editorial page would be given over to full columns of opinion, letters, and clipped gems from other papers. Thus a column was indeed a column, and one who had to fill one for each edition became a columnist.

One time years ago I was mentioned in a weekly Vermont newspaper, and having misread my biography, the editor identified me as ``a communist for The Christian Science Monitor.'' This surprised but also pleased everybody. But in the old sense that I had a column to fill, I was never a columnist. In the beginning, when this newspaper was standard size, the spot on the editorial page under the daily cartoon (remember Carmack?) was esoterically dubbed the ``fourth column.'' This was my spot, and it was never a ``column.'' And I was never a communist, either.

Mechanically, in the good old days of movable type, a column had to be ``justified'' before it went to press. It's hard to justify many things, but in this connection it meant spacing the type so every column would be the exact same length for the press. Printers used leads (leds) for such spacing, but also had ``fillers.'' A filler was a two-, three-, maybe only one-line extraneity that served only to close the column. My favorite always was ``This line fills this column.''

This line fills this column.