Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're changing the font…
Q: Hi AWC, my friend is having a font problem.
A: If it’s Comic Sans, we’re not touching it.
Q: No, not “font” as in typeface. She wrote that someone was a “font of wisdom” but was told it should be “fount” and now her brain’s gone all Wingdings.
A: Nice. So, let’s take a look at the history of both words.
A: The original “font” meaning comes from the 12th century – as a “water basin”, typically used in baptisms. The word itself actually originates from the same place as “fountain” – the Latin “fons”, meaning spring or water source.
Q: So the typeface “font” isn’t related?
A: Nope. It didn’t turn up until the late 16th century. From Old French “fonte” meaning “to melt” – as in the metal that was used to make the typeface letters for printing presses. “Fonte” also gave us “foundry” – the places where this metal was melted.
Q: Wait, is “fonte” where we also get “fondue” from – “to melt”?
A: Cheesy, but true.
Q: Alright, so what about “fount”?
A: Well, this was also a derivative of “fountain”, except it came along much later – again around the late 16th century. It’s likely that English decided to treat “fountain” the same as it treated “mountain” – with both getting shorter forms “fount” and “mount” respectively.
Q: And what about “dountain”?
A: Um, that’s not a word.
Q: Sure it is. The place with Mr Carson and Daisy and Anna & Bates, Lord Grantham, Lady Edith…
A: Ah, that's Downton Abbey. Totally different spelling.
Q: Oh, okay fine. There’s no need to get all Dowager Countess…
A: Right, okay. So, anyway, what we end up with is two words – “font” and “fount” – which both derived from “fountain”, albeit 400 years apart. But when it came to describing sources of things other than water, it was the new kid that bubbled to the surface.
Q: So, a “fount of wisdom”?
A: Yes, that’s the general consensus. For example, Macquarie Dictionary, only lists “fount” as “a source or origin” of something, i.e. wisdom, knowledge etc. Next to “font”, it only has the typeface meaning and variations of a water basin, reservoir or receptacle.
Q: Is this the same all over the world?
A: Generally. It’s only really in US English that both “font” and “fount” are listed with similar “x of wisdom” meanings – causing a little confusion.
Q: Wow, that’s rather un-American. They’re usually so decisive and it’s typically Britain left dithering over using both.
A: We know, right? But in this case, while “fount” is more popular even in America (about two thirds use it), the persistence of “font” along with the Americanisation of the globe through the internet has affected the usage gap, which appears to be closing every year.
Q: Hmmm. Yet, despite all that, it’s still currently better to use “fount of knowledge” and “fount of wisdom” etc, right?
A: Absolutely. It’s favoured heavily by purists. Just know that if you see “font”, it’s not entirely wrong – especially in the USA.
Q: Anything else to add?
A: Yes actually. According to the dictionaries of the world, Britain traditionally called things like Times New Roman a “fount”, not a “font” – an unrelated coincidence stemming from that French origin that gave us “foundry”. However, despite that assertion, we’d argue that today the printing industry fairly universally accepts “font” not “fount” (or just says “typeface” instead).
Q: But will they ever accept Comic Sans?
A: We hope not. In fact, if you want some font fun, check this out.
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!