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shameless pleading


To boldly hit “print.”

Dear Word Detective:  Recently, I got to wondering about the word “font.” There are several definitions, including a baptismal “font,” a typeface and someone, like yourself, a “font” of wisdom. I can accept that there might be some similarity between a baptismal font (water being splashed about generously) and a “font of wisdom” (wisdom being splashed about generously), but how do typefaces fit into the picture? Even more obscure, perhaps, is the word “fontanelle.” My sources suggest it comes from a similar source as the other meanings of font — i.e., a little spring. Ew. — Jim Brown.

“Font of wisdom”? OK, that got the cats snickering. When I was a kid, my mother framed a cartoon from the New Yorker and put it on the wall of the home office she shared with my father (who started this column in 1954). It showed a woman laughingly addressing her husband, a stereotypical bearded wise man in robes, saying “I still can’t get over your being a sage. You didn’t know beans when I married you.” (Interestingly, if you Google “beans sage cartoon,” you’ll find that the New Yorker is selling prints of that cartoon.)

Explaining how a baptismal “font” could possibly be related to the sort of “font” you use on your computer turns out, thankfully, to be unnecessary. There are actually two separate and completely unrelated “fonts” in English.

The typeface kind of “font” is the easier to explain. We use “font” loosely to mean a style of type (e.g., Comic Sans, the official Microsoft font), but, more precisely, a “font” is a complete set of a certain style of type, i.e., including a complete alphabet, punctuation, numerals, etc. This “font” first appeared in English in the late 16th century, based on the French “fonte,” from “fondre,” meaning “to cast” as one “casts” objects from molten metal. The first use of “font” in English was, in fact, to mean simply “cast iron.” Type at that time was, of course, cast from metal, but it wasn’t until the late 17th century that “font” (then often in the form “fount” or even “found”) was used in the “family of type” sense (“Break down the Printing-Presses, melt the Founds.” 1723).

“Font” in the other senses you mention is from a different source, the Latin “fons,” meaning “spring” or “fountain.” (“Fons” is also the ultimate source of “fountain.”) The earliest use of “font” in Old English was to mean a receptacle for water in a church used for baptism, etc. The form “fount,” which had the same source but is sometimes considered a different word, popped up in literary use in the 16th century with the meaning “spring, source” in both literal and figurative senses (“Ancient founts of inspiration well thro’ all my fancy yet.” Tennyson, 1842). This is the elusive “fount” or “font” of wisdom. As to which is correct in this sense, both are; although the poetic use of “fount” has made “fount of wisdom” more popular, “font” seems to be gaining on it in recent years.

“Fontanelle” comes directly from French, where it means literally “little fountain.” The most common uses of “fontanelle” are for the depression or hollow between two muscles or the areas of a baby’s skull that remain soft and flexible for the first year or so after birth. (The human skull is actually made up of six separate bones that fuse together over time.) The use of “fontanelle” for these spots (and the space between muscles) comes from the slight depression at such places, similar to a spring in a shallow hollow of the earth.

1 comment to Font

  • Stephanie

    Thanks for all the great work! When I teach about the fontanelles in my Anatomy classes, we use a similar explanation for the word but include the pulsing of the babies blood pressure which is visible in the fontanelle of a newborn, as the main reason for calling it “little fountain.” I imagine the early use of forceps style tools cause quite a few little fountains to pour forth!

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