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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.
(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.
To add to porche's comment, here is a definition from thefreedictionary.com:
pi also pie, Printingn. pl. pis also piesAn amount of type that has been jumbled or thrown together at random.v. pied (pd) also pied, pi·ing also pie·ing, pies also piesv.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.
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?
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.
Lou Anne Kirby
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.
When a compositor (one who sets type in a composing "stick" let the neatly set type fall, it becomes "pi." I have always thought of it as in making a pie by mixing up ingredients--apples, raisins, cinnamon. The jumbled type is then thrown into a "hell box," and I think the origin of that is pretty clear. After the typesetting is done, an apprentice may be set to sorting pi back into the proper type drawers. In the days before the Linotype and other typesetting machines, it required a lot of typesetters, broadly called "printers" although they may never get closer to the press than delivering type to the compositor's stone table, to prepare a daily newspaper. So in the 1850s-70s it was a job for a large number of high school age boys, much as being a gas jockey was in the 1940s, or a fast-food clerk (which included high school age girls) in more recent years.
I have read - dozens of times, about "pi"ing type, from my research on 1875-1923 newspapers. Here is the latest example I just read from the Silverton Colorado Democrat-Herald of August 15, 1885, Page 3, Column 1, and I think this adequately defines what ye seek:
"He is a sanctimonious printer who will "pi" seven lines of type and never swear about it. He works in the Democrat-Herald office."
Clearly, to pi type is to place it into a state that would make one swear. This would be a jumbled mess that would then need laborious sorting as each letter must be examined to determine what it is and then placed in the proper bin. Then, in this case, the type must be reset by the printer.
I have never seen a reference to a "Hell box" as described above, but that sure makes sense, especially when the young boy that was stuck with all the messy jobs in a print shop -- including sorting type, was called a Devil... and clearly he would spend a great deal of time "in Hell."
I always thought the phrase "pi the type" meant taking a hammer and smashing the metallic letter to prevent printing. I had thought that "pi" was "pie" and so "pie the type" meant treating the metallic letters in the press like a pie (i.e, smash).
I remember the term as "pi the case", new it well. My boss called me clumsy.
My take was that the letter pi "π" was not often used, ergo as it was pretty useless for most compositing. When the type is spilled they are all, like π, pretty useless until they are sorted back into the correct trays.
As a child hanging out and occasionally helping out in our little Blue Ridge weekly newspaper, The Floyd Press (formerly The Mountain Boomer...named after a squirrel!) where my Daddy was the Editor & Publisher and my Grandmother set the type, I heard "Pi" more than once when a somebody dropped a form. It was cussing, as far as we knew...and we'd lay low while somebody would read the type backwards and figure out where it fit again.
kathleen hallman adams
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