Wednesday, March 21, 2012

J is for Justify

There are several words in English that have totally different meanings depending on context. For me, the word “justify” is one such word, which you could say I use both professionally and recreationally.

For most of us, one of the main meanings of “justify” is to provide a reason for something. This is the way I’m most likely to use the word recreationally: On this blog I write a lot about politics and I often either justify my own beliefs and positions, or I try to undermine the justification my adversaries use. Still, at some point we all need to provide evidence for something we believe, though not necessarily to justify our belief as much as to justify someone else in believing us.

Another important sense of the word is to prove someone’s faith in us. Personally, I can’t think of anyone I know who doesn’t care whether or not they disappoint certain people in their lives—partners, parents, whatever. It may not be our driving force in life, but it is important.

Perhaps the most common use for me is among the least common for most people: I use it to refer to the alignment of type on a page. When I was just starting in the printing/publishing industries, we used to speak of “justified text” as aligning on both the left and right margins, like most newspapers. If aligned only on the left, we said it was “ragged right” (or sometimes “rag right”), meaning the text aligned perfectly on the lefthand side, but was uneven on the right, much as someone would have if using an old fashioned typewriter. The opposite was, of course, “ragged left” (or “rag left”), but this was far less commonly used, and then, mostly for effect (like in ads).

Times changed, and the birth of desktop publishing changed everything. With ordinary people able to make their own page layouts, the terminology needed to be simplified. So, at first, it became justified left, justified right and fully justified. But this was still too confusing, so it became aligned left, aligned right and justified, and this or similar is what most people use today—even professionals.

As a related aside, at the same time the word for the distance between lines of type was changed from “leading” (rhymes with “bedding”) to “linespacing”. All of the terms that once referred to the heritage of typography and page layout changed to accommodate modern technology and users.

There are plenty of people who could justify this change in terminology based on making things easier for the average user, and there are certainly some curmudgeons who cling to the old terminology as a way to justify charging high fees for graphic arts services when, in my view, the work itself should be all the justification needed.

And let’s face it: Picking a word starting with a particular letter is all the justification we need for an ABC Wednesday blog post, whether the text itself is justified or not.

Justification can also refer to a central tenet of the Lutheran faith I was brought up in, which is usually referred to as “justification by faith”: Lutherans believe that people receive salvation through faith alone. I may be a non-theist, but I remember where I came from—wait, am I just trying to justify talking about my religious heritage?

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Roger Owen Green said...

Yes, justification by faith means that one's actions do not help with salvation, topic of this past week's sermon.
But the thing I thought of was Justify My Love by Madonna, perhaps the antithesis

ROG, ABC Wednesday team

Chubskulit Rose said...

What a profound explanation of the word justify. Great post for this week's letter.

Rose, ABC Wednesday Team

Would you consider removing your word verification, it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Arthur Schenck said...

Roger: Oddly, I hadn't thought of that song—but it got stuck in my head after your comment, so thanks…

Rose: I'll try that as an experiment, but it's the only way, short of allowing only registered users tocomment or enabling comment moderation, to prevent spam comments. Still, I'll explore further.

Scriptor Senex said...

I'm late getting here but glad I did eventually. I could justify my delay but I'll leave it to your imagination. A most interesting post. I'd heard the expression ragged right (but then I'm an oldie) but leading was a new one to me. Presumably something to do with the fact that the letters were metal (lead?).

Arthur Schenck said...

Yes, that's it exactly! "Leading" actually refers to the lead strips placed between lines of type, which were also cast in lead, of course. By the time I entered the field, leading was expressed as the total space—type height and the extra space, but the origin was in molten lead.