I consider the origins of words to be an important part of history—but also fascinating and fun in their own right. So before we head off to the farms, I thought I’d offer this little bit of nomenclature and how it arose.
A hundred years ago, if you wanted to print something, you had to set type. (There are still places this is done, but there were no other options back then.) Each letter had to be set by hand. Printing was done on a press that looked like this.
The typesetter would place type in a frame that would keep all the letters in place. Type was made of lead, which is why even with computers, people speak of “leading”—that extra bit of lead one would add to create more space between lines on the page. The typesetter would keep all the letters close at hand, in cases like these.
The type for capitals, or upper case letters was needed less often than the type for lower case letters—and that contributed to how we got these terms for the different types of letters. The letters one needed more often were kept in the lower of the two cases, and the capital letters were in the farther, slightly harder to reach upper case.