If you were a printer using the moveable type system developed by Johannes Gutenburg, a letter was referred as a ‘sort’. If you were ‘out of sorts’ you had run out of a letter you needed.
One of the most hated jobs was to distribute, or dis, the type, back into the case. The job was often given to an apprentice compositor.
Historically, blocks of type had to be set upside down and backwards. So a typesetter had to be careful to use the right letter, or receive a nasty surprise when the (at the time, very expensive) paper had to be thrown out because an incorrect letter had been selected.
So next time you have a few too many letter ‘E’s, remember those ems and ens.
An em is the width of an uppercase letter M, an en is the width of the capitol letter N.
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