Language Corner

The source of all knowledge

November 20, 2020
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Language Corner aims to inform and entertain, and often discusses words and phrases in the news.

VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE, defending President Trump during a conference in Munich in 2019, repeatedly invoked Trump’s name “as some God-given fount of wisdom,” a New York Times columnist wrote. A Pennsylvania newspaper warned that having experience “doesn’t mean you’re an unimpeachable font of wisdom with nothing left to learn.” The Complete Asian Cookbook, by the food writer Charmaine Solomon, is “a font of knowledge,” a food columnist wrote. A woman with a suburban Chicago street named after her is, per one newspaper, “a fount of knowledge about the history” of the suburb.

So is it a “fount” or “font” of wisdom or knowledge? If you read this column, you should know by now that it’s not that easy.

First, since we’re mostly journalists here, let’s dispense with the confusion you might be feeling about “font.” It signifies the characteristics that make up a typeface, such as size, style, etc. It comes from the French word fonte, for something melted or cast, like “hot type” in the old days. It came into English in the late 16th century, about a hundred years after Gutenberg.

In Britain, though, it’s usually spelled “fount.” Which only adds to the confusion over the expression for knowledge or wisdom.

Typeface aside, a “font” is a basin of water, usually used in baptisms. In English, it is older than the type “font,” arriving from the ecclesiastical Latin font-em around 1000, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. By transference, it became a receptacle for holy water or other essential liquids, like lamp oil.

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By comparison, a “fount” was originally a spring and was short for “fountain,” arriving in English at the end of the 16th century, the OED says. (Shakespeare gets the first citation of “fount,” in The Rape of Lucrece.) “Fountain” comes from the Latin fons.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the phrases at hand. Both “fount” and “font” mean the source of wisdom/knowledge. Can a baptismal “font” be a source of something? Can a “fountain”? Certainly a stream can, bolstering the case for “fount.” And shortly before he died in 749, St. John of Damascus wrote a treatise called The Fount of Knowledge. (Of course, he wrote it in Greek, so it doesn’t count for usage in English, but there you have it.)

So does that mean “fount” is the proper usage? Maybe. 

The wonderful Grammarphobia blog wrote in 2017: “‘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.”

But, the blog added, the Oxford English Corpus, a collection of billions of printed words that shows how people use them, suggests “font of knowledge is now the more common form.”

Our own search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English finds that “fount” of knowledge or wisdom appear with about the same frequency, closely followed by “font of wisdom” but trailed by “font of knowledge.”

Even so, “fount of knowledge” leads the pack in appearances in books, according to this Google N-gram, although usage of all four forms has exploded in the past twenty years.

Interestingly, “fount of wisdom” and “font of knowledge” appear with about the same frequency, with “font of wisdom” bringing up the rear. “Fount” was the most common form for many years, but “font” is gaining rapidly. 

Keep in mind, though, that “fount” of knowledge or wisdom is often used sarcastically. And if you want to use “font” sarcastically, try printing the wisdom in Comic Sans.

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Correction: A previous version of this post identified the writer Charmaine Solomon as “late.” She is very much alive. CJR regrets the error.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.