What Is a Serif Font? | What Are Serifs?

(Last Updated On: October 4, 2021)

You’ve probably heard fonts referred to as serif and sans-serif before. Which you might think is weird because everything is basically either Times New Roman or Calibri. Maybe also Comic Sans but someone definitely had a visceral reaction to the thought of something being written in Comic Sans. So what makes a serif font a serif font? What does “serif” mean anyway?

What Do Serif and Sans Mean Anyway?

Let’s start with what “serif” means. Serifs are the little tails at the ends and bottom of each letter in a font. For reference, the font you are reading the majority of this post in is not a serif font. We’re assuming you’re not using some kind of extension that changes the font in your browser. 

Times New Roman, on the other hand, is a serif font. You’re reading this in a serif font.

So that was easy. But what about “sans”? Well the prefix “sans” in sans-serif means what you probably think it does if you’ve put two and two together. Sans-serif means your typeface does not have serifs. The prefix “sans,” then, just means “without” in the most direct translation. It dates back to the 14th century and is linked directly to Old French. 

Sans would be applied to serif as “sans-serif” or “sanserif” by 1830.

In case you were wondering, old sans-serif fonts were once alternatively referred to as “grotesque fonts.” This will be important later. Sometimes you’ll see serif fonts called “roman” fonts. 

Times New Roman. It’s all coming together.

So Why Do We Have Serifs?

Even the word “serif” is debatable in its origin. The 18th century Dutch word schreef is sometimes credited as the word’s contemporary origin. Schreef just refers to the marks of a pen. 

Serifs originate from Greek inscriptions into stone. A prominent theory as to the origins of the serifs relates to these carvings. This theory alleges that before being carved into stone, painters would paint the lettering first. These brush strokes would kind of flare out like serifs, so when the carvers got to their work they ended up also carving in the flares. Others, like Timothy Samara’s Typography Workbook allege that serifs were used to neaten the chiseled letters. It’s generally more accepted that serif fonts originate from flourishes of handwritten work. They were even used when printing presses came about–it made the printed text look handwritten. 

Like all new technologies, people were scared of printing presses at first. 

Throughout history, serifs were often associated with the Roman Empire–as it was Roman inscriptions that gave them their popularity. If you find that something being described as “Roman” has the general connotation of being “civilized,” the Victorians would agree with you. They became commonplace throughout the Italian Renaissance.

The British Conquer Egypt

The Europeans were kind of super obsessed with Egypt. Like they ate mummies in the 17th century and that’s kind of why there aren’t a lot left. Anyway the British conquered Egypt in the 19th century and with it came an obsession with sans-serif fonts. 

Rich people didn’t much like them, though. Serifs had gained a reputation for being “cultured,” so removing them was offensive to the elite. If you were wondering why sans-serif fonts were sometimes referred to as “grotesque,” this is why. 

So started the war between serifs and sans-serifs. The Romantics saw the emergence of sans-serif fonts–which makes sense if you remember that Romanticism was in part about biting back at the Church. Sans-serif fonts appealed to those who wanted to move past being medieval. They also appealed to industrialists who found the typeface to be more efficient. Serifs would come back at the end of the 19th century with the Art Nouveau Movement. Some people like Adolf Loos really didn’t like that, staking the claim that culture’s evolution comes from the “elimination of ornament from useful objects” in 1908. Which, whatever your feelings on serifs being a weird symbol for how “the west is the best because it’s super civilized,” seems like a pretty reductive way to view culture. 

The idea that serifs were useless ornaments would persist; later, more minimalist art movements embraced the sans-serif path for this reason. Other movements aiming to take jabs at the cultural and financial elite similarly embraced sans-serif fonts for their intrinsic ties to western imperialism. 

See if you know what everyone’s favorite fonts are here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.