In a recent study delightfully titled “The Devil’s in the ‘g’-Tails,” researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that most people are unaware of the common form of the lowercase “g” that appears in books. It looks like this: g. If you glossed right over that, notice that the letter has two closed loops, distinct from the way “g” is usually written by hand.
“Nobody seemed to know what I was talking about,” Michael McCloskey, a cognitive scientists at Hopkins, recalls of the time he mentioned this difference to his students. So they set out to study if anyone else was aware, and it was clear: In one experiment of 38 people, only one person could accurately draw this form of the lowercase “g,” known as the double-story or loop-tail “g.”
How did we get to this state of affairs? Why do we exist in this maddening world where we are taught to write one way and our books are printed in another?
The double-story “g”—what is now the common printed form—is the original form of the lowercase “g” (the OG ... ?), says Paul Shaw, a type designer who teaches at the New School. It originated in the eighth century among monks copying religious texts in Latin. The script they used became known as Carolingian script.
Over time, monks copying by hand introduced variations in their letters. And so, the single-story “g” emerged, most famously in black-letter or Gothic calligraphy. When Johannes Gutenberg started printing books in the mid-15th century, he naturally copied the monks’ Gothic script. The lowercase “g”s of the Gutenberg Bible resemble a single-story “g,” as do the lowercase “g”s of modern Gothic typefaces that imitate this style.
Then, plot twist: the return of the double-story “g.” “In the Renaissance,” says Shaw, “there was an interest in Roman and Greek culture by scholars that led to a revival of the Carolingian script.” Like Gutenberg, later Renaissance type cutters also imitated local scripts, and the Carolingian double-story “g” eventually became popular in print all over Europe. But single-story “g” prevails in handwriting, probably due to how much easier and quicker it is to write.
(The lowercase “a” also has distinct written and printed forms, though the Hopkins researchers found that people were much better at recognizing the printed double-story “a” than “g,” for some reason.)