The ancient Egyptians and Chinese made ink from soot mixed with other carbons, such as burnt bones. Today we call it India ink. For centuries, this thick black ink was used with a brush, but about three thousand years ago somebody discovered that a large feather from a swan or a goose was easier to write with. Such feathers are called quills, from the old German word quiele. The tip of the quill had to be cut to a rounded point with a split in it so that the ink flowed smoothly but not too quickly from its reservoir in the hollow quill. Sharpening the quill needed a small, sharp knife which today we call a penknife.
So what is a pen? The word comes from the Latin penna, which means feather. “Pen” is also the name for a female swan. Although both quill and pen mean the same thing in the context of writing, “quill” is a noun, while “pen” can be used as a noun or a verb (to pen a letter).
The nib is the sharp point of the pen. The word “nib” comes from the Dutch nib, meaning nose or beak. In England, it also means one’s boss or superior, as in the expression “his nibs.” Perhaps the constant trimming of the quill gave us the verb “to nibble”.
There were many attempts to design a pen that had its own ink reservoir so we wouldn’t have to carry inkwells with us. These new pens that came with ink were called reservoir or fountain pens. “Fountain” was an apt name because so many of them tended to leak. When flying became popular, it was soon discovered that the change in air pressure often forced the ink to flow out of some fountain pens with disastrous results.
In 1943 a Hungarian Jew living in Argentina, Laslo Biro, patented the ball point pen, which is still called a Biro in many countries. In 1950, the patent was bought by a Marcel Bich, a Frenchman born in Italy. Monsieur Bich started the Société Bic S.A., or Bic Pen Company. Although the new pen became instantly popular, it was banned in my school for some unexplained reason, although fountain pens were allowed. For a while, the banks did not accept checks (cheques) written with a Biro, or Bic, because the ink tended to fade, but the ink was improved. It was also discovered that a ball point could be pressed harder than a nib, which enabled multiple carbon copies to be made.
Calligraphy comes from the Greek word kalligraphia, which means “beautiful writing.” Calligraphy needs a nib with a split end because increasing or decreasing the pressure on the nib affects the width of the ink flow. We were taught to write “thin up. wide down,” and our teachers assured us that the ability to form beautiful letters was an important part of learning to write correct English. But my writing never was beautiful, even though I still have the expensive fountain pen I used in college. I have not used it for many a year.