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Thread: Do your ballpoint pens have nibs?

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    Senior Member Kaputnik's Avatar
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    Default Do your ballpoint pens have nibs?

    One thing I find interesting (because I'm that sort of person) is to look up words that I already know in the dictionary. Not just words that I know, but words that "everybody" knows. Words that nobody needs explained, which one assumes are only in the dictionaries because dictionaries are supposed to be relatively complete. And sometimes when I do that, I find that what everybody knows is, if not wrong, at least incomplete.

    We all know what a nib is. It's that pointy piece of metal at the end of your fountain pen with the slot down the middle. Or perhaps it's the similar piece that's part of a dip pen, although in that case, according to some, the "nib" actually is the pen, and fits into a pen holder so you can write with it.

    Hmm, how about the tip of a Pilot Parallel, which has two parallel plates close together, rather than a slot down the center. It's still a fountain pen, but does it have a nib? Let's ask the dictionaries.

    The American Heritage Dictionary was the first real dictionary I owned, and my 1969 edition has followed me around since childhood. According to it, a nib is the point of a quill pen, especially when sharpened, or a pen point designed to be inserted in a pen holder. That might not even include fountain pens at all, depending on how you interpret the second sense.

    Webster's Unabridged gives a couple of relevant meanings including a pen point designed for insertion in a pen holder (although it says that is "chiefly British"). But it also says "the point of a pen, or either of its divisions". That's odd. Does that mean that the part on each side of the slot can separately be referred to as a nib? Or what divisions does this refer to? If each half of a nib is itself a nib, do your fountain and dip pens actually have two nibs? Do music nibbed pens have three nibs?

    There are other meanings in there, by the way, such as the beak or bill of a bird, but let me not get too distracted. Although when I went to the Oxford English Dictionary, I found that one archaic meaning of nib is a junior or novice scholar.

    But in the OED, although there are the meanings given in Webster's above, the first relevant definition is simply "a pen point". Given that a fine tipped ballpoint is at least as pointy as some fountain pen nibs with a generous blob of tipping material, and that a ball point has divisions (the ball and the tapered bit on the cartridge that it fits into), couldn't we say that a ballpoint has a nib? Even though the term "nib" existed long before the concept of the ballpoint.

    Do ballpoints have nibs? How about felt tips?
    "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."
    G.K. Chesterton

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    Default Re: Do your ballpoint pens have nibs?

    The most important part about language is to be understood in context. On a fountain pen enthusiast forum, a nib very plainly refers to the little bit of metal resting on top of the feed. In a broader context, or while holding a ballpoint pen, a nib could easily refer to the end of a ballpoint pen, though I think it would be more likely to be called the point. In any case where language is ambiguous enough to likely confuse recieving parties, clarification is warrented even when using words by their dictionary found definition.

    A dictionary is in no way the final word on what a word means. It is compiled by an individual or group of people writing the meanings of words as they know them, and will necessarily need revision as language changes and evolves. Only in scrabble, or perhaps a formal style guide, is it ever given the last say.

    I think you get into territory of quizzicle looks if you call a brush a nib, because it has a much more common name that you are purposefully not using, but to call the business end of writing instruments the nib in general, particularly on this forum, would be perfectly natural even if some of those business ends included brush tips or felt tips or ballpoints.

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    Senior Member Paddler's Avatar
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    Default Re: Do your ballpoint pens have nibs?

    Quote Originally Posted by Zou View Post

    A dictionary is in no way the final word on what a word means. It is compiled by an individual or group of people writing the meanings of words as they know them, and will necessarily need revision as language changes and evolves. Only in scrabble, or perhaps a formal style guide, is it ever given the last say.
    Not true. This is the cop-out given by the writers of dictionaries. It is the way they cover themselves in case they missed something or just flat made a mistake. A dictionary IS the final word on definitions and spelling. My dictionary has to have the same definitions as your dictionary, otherwise we can't communicate precisely. A robin is a thrush, dammit, not an eagle.
    Written on a real computer and real keyboard with capital letters, punctuation, and everything.

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    Default Re: Do your ballpoint pens have nibs?

    I had to go and look up "What is a nib" on my iMac because I'm in the UK and thought I might not necessarily get the same results as you got, Kaputnik.

    Somewhat surprisingly, I did get most of the results that you mentioned. I also got this result: "the pointed end part of a pen, which distributes the ink on the writing surface."

    From that maybe we should be asking a different question: "What is a pen?"
    Regards, Chrissy | My Blog: inkyfountainpens

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    Default Re: Do your ballpoint pens have nibs?

    Seems to me our particular subculture has a narrower definition of nib than society at large.

    I've noticed, in particular, a signpainter friend of mine using the term nib to refer to his replaceable marker tips. His were wide and looked like they were made of felt.

    It's weird now 'cause folks using the term nib in the broader sense are few and far between (know many signpainters?) And interest in fountain pen nibs is arguably more intense than ever.

    Anyway, I'm in the camp that holds dictionaries are descriptive rather than proscriptive, although most folks don't seem to agree. That's fine, as they work fine in that capacity anyway.

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    Default Re: Do your ballpoint pens have nibs?

    Quote Originally Posted by Chrissy View Post
    I had to go and look up "What is a nib" on my iMac because I'm in the UK and thought I might not necessarily get the same results as you got, Kaputnik.

    Somewhat surprisingly, I did get most of the results that you mentioned. I also got this result: "the pointed end part of a pen, which distributes the ink on the writing surface."

    From that maybe we should be asking a different question: "What is a pen?"
    Well, I did quote one British dictionary, the OED. I have the "compact" edition. It supposedly has the complete text of the multi-volume one, but is printed on very thin paper in very tiny print. It came with a magnifying glass, but sometimes I just take my glasses off and put my nose close to the page. My other dictionaries are on paper, too, although I admit to using online ones frequently.

    Quote Originally Posted by manoeuver View Post
    Seems to me our particular subculture has a narrower definition of nib than society at large.
    Definitely, and of course I realize that "around here", there is little doubt about what is meant by a nib, or that a ballpoint tip isn't it. If I were speaking with other chessplayers about chess, then words such as rank, file, and algebraic would take on special meanings. There are technical terms for my field of work which don't mean quite what they would mean in everyday conversation. And so on. It's just that a specialist usage isn't necessarily the last word. Or the last definition of a word.

    Quote Originally Posted by manoeuver View Post
    I've noticed, in particular, a signpainter friend of mine using the term nib to refer to his replaceable marker tips. His were wide and looked like they were made of felt.

    It's weird now 'cause folks using the term nib in the broader sense are few and far between (know many signpainters?) And interest in fountain pen nibs is arguably more intense than ever.

    Anyway, I'm in the camp that holds dictionaries are descriptive rather than proscriptive, although most folks don't seem to agree. That's fine, as they work fine in that capacity anyway.
    Descriptive, prescriptive, and proscriptive. I don't really disagree, and of course, usages change. My larger point is that we tend to learn words by how we hear them used, and by how other people explain them to us. It's impractical for us to look up every word that we use or hear used. But when we do look up common words, we often learn something where we thought we already knew all we needed to know.

    The definition of nib which I found most intriguing was the one saying "either division of a pen point".
    "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."
    G.K. Chesterton

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    Default Re: Do your ballpoint pens have nibs?

    The people who compile dictionaries should monitor actual usage and record it, so a place like this and some excellent websites like Binder's would give them the full and correct terminology of fountain pens. How 'nib' applies to quills is a different matter but I wouldn't generalize from that. Nobody calls the point of a ballpoint pen a nib. If technically speaking it should be classified under 'nib' according to some irrefutable scientific criteria (just like tomatoes and fruit), then I'm glad for all pedants in the world.

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    Default Re: Do your ballpoint pens have nibs?

    Quote Originally Posted by Kaputnik View Post
    (snip) But when we do look up common words, we often learn something where we thought we already knew all we needed to know.

    The definition of nib which I found most intriguing was the one saying "either division of a pen point".
    that is an intriguing little tidbit. For Sure, reading through entries in a good dictionary rarely fails to raise an eyebrow or two.

    If you like that kind of thing and want to have a delirious good time, may I recommend Joseph Shipley's The Origins of English Words, A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. I'm not sure how I came across my copy, but it's crazy what you learn in the course of a page or two.

    Like just now, looking for insight on nib, I instead learned that nincompoop is likely derived from non compos mentis, and use of the term Love meaning no score in a tennis match comes from the French l'oueuf, egg, as in goose egg. Somebody here may have known that already, I did not.

    Alas, no word from Shipley on the origins of ​nib.

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