Swastika tempest in a teapot

No doubt you’ve heard by now that Office 2003 ships with a font that contains two swastikas. (I think Reuters first published the story, but apparently Microsoft itself fed the story to the press).

Apologies have been made all around, MS has promised a tool for removing the offending characters (which isn’t posted yet, as far as I can tell), and nobody I know has gone ballistic over the incident.

Strange that Microsoft can find the time to announce a fix for a problem that, while offensive to some, is causing no harm. Yet the company is silent about the serious RAND() bug in Excel 2003 with a compliant media going along with it. You have to wonder why Microsoft can announce the Swastika problem with a fix to come yet not tell customers (or even their own support staff) about a serious problem.

If you were around in April, 1992, you may recall a slightly different reaction. Some idiot at the New York Post was swimming over his head in a perilously shallow part of the gene pool when he discovered that if you type “NYC” in Word, then change the font to Wingdings, you get an “anti-Semitic message”. The message? A skull, the Star of David, and a thumbs-up symbol.


The fact that a significant percentage of the truly gifted people at Microsoft working on fonts at the time were Jewish didn’t seem to make much difference.

Fast forward eleven and a half years and at least we were spared the conspiracy theories. But there’s one question that haunts me. And it doesn’t have anything to do with swastikas.


The press has taken up the fact that Bookshelf Symbol 7 – the font causing the heartburn – was developed in Japan. Swastikas have been around Asia for at least three millennia. So it’s hard to fault the Japanese creators of the font for any sort of cultural insensitivity – although the ‘Softies in Redmond surely know better.

(I’ll skip lightly over the fact that many symbols we in the US take for granted – such as the just-mentioned “thumbs up” symbol – are considered obscene in other parts of the world. Open question: do the swastikas make it illegal to sell Office 2003 in Germany?)

Here’s the more substantive question: is Bookshelf Symbol 7 the worst font Microsoft has ever published? At least, the worst font to ever ship with Office?

Take a look for yourself:

  • Start Word
  • Click Insert | Symbol
  • In the Font box, pick Bookshelf Symbol 7
  • Click on the first visible character – the “a with a hat” – then click insert.
  • Back in the Font box, pick Arial
  • Scroll down to character number 01CE – the “Small letter a with caron” (that’s what the hat is called). Click on the character, then click Insert.
  • You should have two small “a”s with carons, next to each other. If you can’t see the difference between the two characters immediately, select both characters and run the point size up to 72.

Maybe it’s just me. I’m certainly no expert. But I see an enormous difference between the two. The Bookshelf Symbol 7 “a with caron” looks like a cheap knock-off of the Arial original.

There are other very striking differences. The Star of David in Bookshelf Symbol 7, for example, doesn’t hold a candle to the one in Wingdings.

What gives? Microsoft used to have great fonts. Now they import them and don’t give it a cursory glance before foisting it on customers.

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