Submitted by howardthornhill  •  May 11, 2008

“pi the type”

I have now found the phrase “pi the type” in two different books and have an idea of the meaning from the context. I would hope to learn more about the meaning and how it might have originated.

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As I'm sure you're aware, pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, 3.14159.... It's a transcendental number, i.e. the sequence of digits after the decimal point is non-terminating and non-repeating. When pi is used as a verb, it means to randomize, to jumble, to reduce to chaos, similar to the randomly non-repeating nature of pi's digits.

"Pi the type" is a printer/typesetter's expression meaning to, say, take a form with all the type neatly arranged and ready for printing and then drop it on the floor, spilling the type so that characters are strewn all over, mixed up randomly. I suppose it might also describe simply putting type in a form completely at random, not necessarily spilling it on the floor.

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To add to porche's comment, here is a definition from thefreedictionary.com:

pi  also pie, Printing
n. pl. pis also pies
An amount of type that has been jumbled or thrown together at random.
v. pied (pd) also pied, pi·ing also pie·ing, pies also pies
v.tr.
To jumble or mix up (type).
v.intr.
To become jumbled.

My speculation is that the term does not derive from the mathematical term. I seems more likely to have derived from "pied," an adjective meaning "of two or more colors in blotches; also wearing or having a parti-colored coat. example: a pied horse" (Merriam-Webster)

Or a pied piper, for that matter. Merriam-Webster dates the word "pied" to the 14th century. The printing press, specifically movable type, came in to use in Europe in the mid 15th century. Perhaps the word was picked up by early printers as a substitute for "jumbled," another 15th-century word. Maybe they appreciated its economy of letters.

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As one who worked for newspapers in the old hot type days, I believe to "pi the type" or "pye" was to run one's fingera down the first two rows of the liontype machine to finish off a line of type and get the machine to spit it out. Operators could not back up to fix a mistake so they "pyed the type" to get rid of the spoiled line and start a new one. The spoiled type went back into a bucket to be melted down and reused. As a metaphor I guess it would suggest giving up on a lost cause and starting over.

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See <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=pie&...
<http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pi>

(1) The notion that the phrase "pie (or pi or pye) the type" has anything to do with pi the number is dubious, to say the least.

(2) I doubt that "pi" as a verb was used outside the typesetting fraternity.

(3) Pi the number is irrational and transcendental (in the mathematical sense), but that has nothing to do with randomness.

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Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism ordered that the Nouvoo Expositor and the press it was created on be destroyed. "PI the type into the street" was the ordered and the type was pied that same day in June 1844 setting off a chain of events resulting in Smith's death by angry mob. I'm not sure if Linotype was around yet. Single letters of metalized type certainly were and were not easy to sort back into neatly organized upper and lower cases.

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Einstein said “God doesn’t play dice” but much of mother nature can be emulated with a random number generator. Is Pi a random number sequence? Are there “Physics Foibles”? Numbers are the Supreme Court of science. What would Godel say?

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