colophon /KAWL-ə-fən/. noun. A section in a book detailing the book’s production. A publishers logo, emblem or mark.
My first real job—the one that set my life’s course—was in a library. I loved wandering the stacks, feeling excitement and sadness at being surrounded by more books than I could ever read. I never found the perfect word for that contradictory feeling—bittersweet is altogether too thin—but through the world of books I gained entrée to a world of words about books that fascinates me to this day.
In that world we have words for the physical construction of books: kerfs and nicks, headbands and tailbands, dentelle and deckled edges, tip-ins and tie-downs. Sizes include folios, quartos, octavos and duodecimos. If the book is old enough it might be an incunabulum or contain within its pages a palimpsest [PAL-imp-sest]. And this is just the beginning!
But today I want to talk about something that began in the earliest hand-copied books and has survived, and in some ways even thrived, in our era of digital books and all manner of transformation of the codex: the colophon.
The colophon, which can refer to a publisher’s mark or a section of a book with details about the book’s production, comes from from the Latin colophon (same spelling), which was a direct borrowing from the Greek kolophon (a summit, or final/crowning touch). The figurative use of the word was taken from the ancient Greek city of Kolophon (the ruins of which can still be found today on a ridge in Southwest Turkey). All of this goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root kel-, from which modern words as various as hill, column, culminate and excel are derived.
The earliest written example of the word colophon in English uses its original Greek and Latin meaning. In 1621, The Anatomy of Melancholy Robert Burton writes of a particularly adept biblical scholar that:
His Colophon is how to resist and represse Atheisme. (Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton)
A quick digression here: William H. Gass, in his foreword to a modern edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, wrote:
I also have a special fondness for Burton’s pages on museums and libraries. But above all, it is the width of the world that can be seen from one college window that amazes me; what a love of all life can be felt by one who has lived it sitting in a chair; and Robert Burton’s unashamed display of his lust for the word—his desire to name each thing, and find a song in which each thing can be sung—is a passion that we might emulate to our assuredly better health.
I can’t recommend Gass, who sadly died just last week, or Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, highly enough. Gass was one of our finest essayists and thinkers about books and words and the The Anatomy of Melancholy is awesome in the classical sense of the word: comic, tragic, subdued, madcap, encyclopedic and deeply personal all at once.
In contemporary times you’ll see two kinds of colophon.
First, there is a publisher’s mark or emblem. If you’re having a hard time distinguishing between a logo and a colophon, don’t worry about it: a colophon is essentially a logo but specifically for a publisher! The most iconic colophon, the one that my eyes snap to on every shelf and in every picture, is the Penguin Books penguin which has evolved since 1935 to be a little thinner and a little less drunken-looking but is instantly recognizable nonetheless. Similarly, I can’t help but notice the ACE Books star-burst-in-a-pyramid colophon found on so many great books of science fiction, or the DK colophon on a great many illustrated reference books and that, I just learned minutes ago, stands for Dorling Kindersley, a British publisher that just happens to be part of the sprawling conglomerate Penguin Random House.
This first meaning of the term has been largely overtaken by the less interesting shorthand “logo.” But colophon also refers to an inscription at the end of a book containing what modern text geeks now call “meta-information” about the production. In the days before the printing press this usually included the date, the exemplar used by the scribe to create the copy and sometimes the scribe’s name. In more modern times a colophon might include the printer’s name, a list of materials used in the construction of the book and an explanation of the typefaces among other things.
A writer whose name I can’t track down put it best, I think, calling this second kind of colophon “little windows of typographic recognition and biblio-husbandry minutiae… polite nod(s) to the reader’s curiosity.”
And while the book continues to change, sometimes into forms that are hardly recognizable as books at all, the colophon remains, a lagniappe for bibliophiles providing delicious details that would otherwise be irreversibly lost.