January 24, 2007 Edition

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From Didot
to Lippmann

Vivian Heyl
TD Staff

While driving in an early morning downpour, I crested a hill to see a white pickup edging out onto the road. I commented to my daughter, Megan, who was sitting beside me that I sure hoped he didn't continue to pull out. As we passed the pickup I realized that it was a woman in the driver's seat.

It gave me pause to realize how fast I had jumped to the conclusion that because it was a pickup it was a male in the driver's seat. I told Megan that I shouldn't have jumped to that conclusion. That I knew there were probably as many women who drive trucks as men.

She considered for a moment and said, "Well I think you would be safe to say that there are not as many women big rig drivers as men." I told her even that stereotype was falling, and that recently I had noticed many tiny women behind the wheel and not the stereotypical big, beefy, strong guys.

"What does stereotype really mean?" she asked me. "I hear it all the time but I'm not really sure where it comes from."

That was a good question and not one I could readily answer. I told her she should look up the etymology of the word. After explaining what etymology was, we agreed that words sometimes have interesting histories and that finding out about their origins can lead to all kinds of other useless information as well.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I decided to look up the word and share my information with you. Oddly enough the word comes from a newspaper/printing background. More specifically it is a printing term. Invented by Firmin Didot, a stereotype made "a repeatable duplicate image of an original typographical element." A picture or a wood cut image could be stamped multiple times with the same success.

How did we go from a printing term to a metaphor to describe a group of things or people all having the same characteristics?

The first use of stereotype in this sense of the word was by Walter Lippmann in 1922. Lippmann was a journalist and a founding editor of The New Republic. He said that stereotypes were partial truths. They are a means of categorizing people by stamping a group with a set of characteristics without regard to the individual.

The word has become such a part of our vocabulary that it was hard to discover its evolution. We use it to describe many aspects of our world. He was the stereotype of a New York cabby. The movie was your stereotype chick flick.

The problem with stereotypes is that many times they are misleading. Not all truck drivers are men and certainly not all women are bad drivers.

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