Gulliver's Travels, part I, chapter VI, opens with a brief description of Lilliputian culture, teasing a forthcoming ethnography (which Swift never actually produced). After describing the average sizes of animals and plants, he writes:

I shall say but little at present of their learning, which, for many ages, has flourished in all its branches among them: but their manner of writing is very peculiar, being neither from the left to the right, like the Europeans, nor from the right to the left, like the Arabians, nor from up to down, like the Chinese, but aslant, from one corner of the paper to the other, like ladies in England.

In other words, Gulliver rules out left to right ("like the Europeans", that is, Latin script), right to left (as Arabic), and top to bottom writing (as contemporary Chinese), concluding that the writing runs "aslant, from one corner of the paper to the other, like ladies in England." Yet English is written with the Latin script, i.e. from left to right. To what habit of "ladies in England" was this intended to refer?

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    I'm unfamiliar with Gulliver's Travels, but could the author have meant that the writing was a) aslant (slanted, like a lot of cursive scripts) and b) from one corner to the other, i.e. left to right and top to bottom, like what was probably typical English writing at the time? – Cat'r'pillar Feb 2 '16 at 20:19
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    I'm guessing (and trying to verify by checking Google Books for other 18th-19th century sarcastic commentaries on the quality of women's penmanship) that it means that women can't write in a straight line, but slant their line down as they go along (see this recipe list for something not quite the same). – Matt Gutting Feb 2 '16 at 20:48
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    Good question. May also be applicable on History.SE – user32390 Feb 2 '16 at 20:54

I'm pretty sure Swift was referring to this sort of thing: Personal letter from 1825, with lines that slant increasingly as you go down the page

This particular example is from New Orleans, not England, and the writer is a young man, not a lady, but Swift wouldn't be much of a satirist if he let pesky things like facts get in his way.


I cannot be dogmatic, but I believe he is likely referring to the English round hand script (more commonly known as copperplate). According to that Wikipedia article, the script was done at a "a letter slant of 55 degrees from the horizontal" (possibly the earliest script with such a sharp angle) and was first being used "16th century in Europe," but it "was prevalent in the 19th century." Gulliver's Travels was first published in October of 1726 (18th century). So these facts seem relevant:

  • The writing style had a definite slant to the letters in comparison to many other script forms
  • The style at some point took on a name associated to England, which indicates it must have been used more in that part of Europe than other parts since the regional name got associated to it
  • The writing style had existed for a little over 100 years before Gulliver's Travels was written
  • Yet it was not yet so popular by the time of its writing, since popularity was about 100 years after the publication, making the reference to its peculiarity more understandable as well

A copy of the image from the Wikipedia article shows the slant:

enter image description here

How to interpret the quote?

Certainly the quote can be interpreted as referring to "the direction of the writing - the lines, not the letters" (as Martha commented). But the quote merely states it refers to "their manner of writing." This can just as well be interpreted as referring to the manner in which letters are formed during writing. This is significant, because as this video shows, doing the copperplate script is best done by rotating the paper at an extreme diagonal:

And this video demonstrates how the letters are actually formed on that diagonal slant, in essence drawing them "from one corner of the paper to the other" (as Jonathan Swift may be interpreted in the quote as referring to):

Compare the above to how the strokes and character formation tend to occur in the other forms Swift notes (quotes matching to his "manner of writing" comments):

So the letter formation tends to follow (1) the angle of the documents, (2) the characteristics of the script form itself (Arabic using many horizontal lines, Chinese using many vertical or diagonal lines, the German example many horizontal components as well, and the slanted script above), and (3) the direction of the line of text (since characters would connect in the direction one is writing).

  • All the other examples listed refer to the direction of the writing - the lines, not the letters. Why would this last example refer to the direction of the letters? – Martha Feb 3 '16 at 16:06
  • @Martha I have addressed your comment by an edit in my answer. – ScottS Feb 3 '16 at 16:33
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    There’s a fair change that Swift was not aware of this, but a piece of circumstantial support to this view might be that in Chinese calligraphy (and generally when teaching writing in Chinese schools), students are very specifically taught that the paper should be at an exact 0° angle—never slanted in any way. Some of us (lefties, generally) have a tendency to slant the paper even for normal writing, and this is ruthlessly corrected by Chinese writing teachers. I have no idea if something similar holds for Arabic. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 3 '16 at 17:42
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Thanks for that. I suspect, if Swift did not know that, he at least was somewhat familiar with the "manner" of the character formation of Chinese, which as my latest edit has, shows a video where there are a number of vertical strokes used, all from "up to down" as Swift put it, I'd say top to bottom in the stroke technique. – ScottS Feb 3 '16 at 18:58
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    Yes, all strokes are inherently up-to-down in Chinese, or at least they don’t go straight upwards. There are six basic stroke types: 点 diǎn ‘dot’ (really a tiny stroke down-right); 横 héng vertical left-right; 竖 shù vertical top-down; 提 slanted up-right ‘flick’ or stroke; 捺 down-right, fattening at the end; and 撇 piě down-left. The only time you really go upwards is if you add a 钩 gōu ‘hook’ or 斜 xié ‘slant’ to a stroke—then you may end a downwards-sloping stroke with a little ‘jump’ that goes straight up. But you never actually push the brush upwards. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 3 '16 at 19:13

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