Entries linking to letter-press
c. 1200, "graphic symbol, alphabetic sign, written character conveying information about sound in speech," from Old French letre "character, letter; missive, note," in plural, "literature, writing, learning" (10c., Modern French lettre), from Latin littera (also litera) "letter of the alphabet," also "an epistle, writing, document; literature, great books; science, learning;" a word of uncertain origin.
According to Watkins, perhaps via Etruscan from Greek diphthera "tablet" (with change of d- to l- as in lachrymose), from a hypothetical root *deph- "to stamp." In this sense it replaced Old English bocstæf, literally "book staff" (compare German Buchstabe "letter, character," from Old High German buohstab, from Proto-Germanic *bok-staba-m).
Latin littera also meant "a writing, document, record," and in plural litteræ "a letter, epistle, missive communication in writing," a sense passed through French and attested in English letter since early 13c. (replacing Old English ærendgewrit "written message," literally "errand-writing"). The Latin plural also meant "literature, books," and figuratively "learning, liberal education, schooling" (see letters).
The custom of giving the school letter as an achievement award in sports, attested by 1908, is said to have originated with University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. Earlier in reference to colleges it meant "university degree or honor that adds initials to a name" (1888). Expression to the letter "precisely" is from 1520s (earlier after the letter, mid-14c.). Letter-quality (adj.) "suitable for (business) letters" is from 1977. For letters patent (with French word order) see patent (n.).
c. 1300, presse, "a crowd, throng, company; crowding and jostling of a throng; a massing together," from Old French presse (n.) "a throng, a crush, a crowd; wine or cheese press" (11c.), from Latin pressare (see press (v.1)). Late Old English had press in the sense of "clothes press," but the Middle English word probably is from French.
The general sense of "instrument or machine by which anything is subjected to pressure" is from late 14c.: "device for pressing cloth," also "device to squeeze juice from grapes, oil from olives, cider from apples, etc." The sense of "urgency, urgent demands of affairs" is from 1640s. Weightlifting sense is from 1908. The basketball defense so called from 1959 (in full-court press).
The specific sense "machine for printing" is from 1530s; this was extended to publishing houses and agencies of producing printed matter collectively by 1570s and to publishing generally (in phrases such as freedom of the press) from c. 1680. This gradually shifted c. 1800-1820 to "the sum total of periodical publishing, newspapers, journalism." The press, meaning "journalists collectively" is attested from 1921 (though superseded by media since the rise of television, etc.).
Press agent, employed to tend to newspaper advertisements and supply news editors with information, is from 1873, originally theatrical; press conference "meeting at which journalists are given the opportunity to question a politician, celebrity, etc.," is attested from 1931, though the thing itself dates to at least World War I. Press secretary is recorded from 1940; press release "official statement offered to a newspaper for publication" is by 1918.
Via the sense "crowd, throng," Middle English in press meant "in public," a coincidental parallel to the modern phrase in the press.
updated on October 10, 2017