Ran across an article about the smallest legible font.
My graphic-designer cousin dismissed the claim, saying "that looks to be about 4 pt type — the smallest size of METAL type that was made and set by hand in the mid 19th century was 3 point — called “excelsior” size in the old type size system."
That raises the question - "excelsior" is cognate to "excellent." How does “lofty” come to mean tiny?!
L. excelsior "higher," comp. of excelsus (adj.) "high, elevated, lofty," pp. of excellere (see excel), taken 1778 as motto of New York State, where it apparently was mistaken for an adverb. Popularized 1841 as title of a poem by Longfellow. As a trade name for "thin shavings of soft wood used for stuffing cushions, etc.," first recorded 1868, Amer.Eng.
That seems pretty pointless to me if designing for the Web. It is illegible to me, and, I suspect, to most others. On the Web, there's no real need to use tiny fonts, and, with the varying screen resolutions, not to mention eyesight of readers, a recipe for poor useability.
I suspect the name for the font size, "Excelsior" was chosen just because it sounded fancy. The deviser of the names had probably come across it in the NY state motto, and liked its sound, without paying any attention to the meaning.
Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
If you're a New York politician these days your motto is probably "Alka Seltzer."
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. -J. Krishnamurti
I sure can't read that 3-4 point font very well. Annoying!
However, you do bring up a good point about why it was called "excelsior." First of all, I have never liked the word "excelsior" for just the reason that arnie states; people use it to sound fancy. I know of an distance learning college called "Excelsior," and believe me, it's not "lofty" or "excellent." Why one would think a tiny font should be named "excelsior" is beyond me.
On the other hand, that brings up why all our fonts are named as they are: Arial, Times New Roman, Calibri, etc. In some cases the names describe the font, such as Comic Sans MS (funny), but in most cases they just seem to be names.
"Times New Roman" replaced "Times Old Roman" in 1931...
I believe the "Roman" came from the influence of Italian design. This from Wikipedia on serif fonts: "Old Style typefaces are influenced by early Italian lettering design."