Q: In your recent post about “cold feet,” you refer to a character in Shirley Hazzard’s novel The Transit of Venus as a “font of academic gobbledygook.” Don’t you mean “fount”?
A: Both “font” and “fount” are derived from the Latin fons (a spring or fountain) and its combining form, font-. One figurative meaning of both “font” and “fount” in American dictionaries is a source of something.
That said, we didn’t intend to use “font” in our post. Although both words can mean a source in standard American English, we use “fount” for that sense and have changed it on the blog. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.
“Fount” is the traditional usage for this figurative sense, and the only one considered standard in British dictionaries. The UK version of Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, considers “font” a variant when used to mean a source.
However, a page on the Oxford Dictionaries blog hints that the situation may be changing, even though a poll of its readers supports the traditional usage:
“The standard accepted form is fount of knowledge, and this was also the term chosen by the majority of voters in our poll (67%) despite the Oxford English Corpus suggesting that font of knowledge is now the more common form.”
The corpus, a database of contemporary English that includes nearly 2.1 billion words, surveys web pages and printed text in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and the rest of the English-speaking world.
Our own searches of the even larger NOW Corpus at Brigham Young University had similar results. NOW (for “news on the web”) contains 4.2 billion words used by web-based newspapers and magazines from 2010 to the present.
Now, let’s look at the history of these words.
“Font,” the older of the English terms, originally meant (and still does) a “receptacle, usually of stone, for the water used in the sacrament of baptism,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The ecclesiastical Latin is font-em or fontes baptismi.
The earliest OED citation for “font” (fante in Old English) is from the Canons of Ælfric, a pastoral letter written around 1000 by the English abbot Ælfric of Eynsham:
“Ne do man nænne ele to þam fante” (Ælfric here is explaining the proper use of oil, ele, with a baptismal font.)
When the word “fount” showed up nearly six centuries later, it meant a spring. It apparently developed as a shortening of “fountain,” which appeared in writing in the early 1400s as fownteyne, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology. (“Fountain,” like “font,” ultimately comes from the Latin fons, for a spring or fountain.)
The OED’s earliest example of “fount” is from “The Rape of Lucrece,” a 1594 poem by Shakespeare. We’ve expanded the citation to convey the flavor of the poem:
Why should the worme intrude the maiden bud?
Or hatefull Kuckcowes hatch in Sparrows nests?
Or Todes infect faire founts with venome mud?
Or tyrant follie lurke in gentle brests?
By the early 1600s, “fount” was being used figuratively to mean a source. The first OED example is from an English translation of “Eclogue IV,” a Latin poem by Virgil:
“From this fount did all those mischiefes flow.” (In Michael Drayton’s Poemes Lyrick and Pastorall, circa 1605.)
Soon, “font” was being used to mean “fount” in the sense of a spring, as in this OED example from Coryate’s Crudities, a 1611 collection of travel writing by Thomas Coryate: “Delicate fonts and springes.”
In the 1700s and 1800s, English writers began using “font” figuratively to mean a source, though “fount” was more common in this sense, according to our database searches.
Here’s an example from “Childish Recollections,” an 1806 poem by Byron:
Friend of my heart, and foremost of the list
Of those with whom I lived supremely blest,
Oft have we drain’d the font of ancient lore;
Though drinking deeply, thirsting still the more.
We should note here that in typography, the British generally use “fount” and Americans “font” to refer to a typeface, a usage that showed up in the late 1600s.