Each week The Old Editor will attempt to address your entreaties for information and advice on grammar and usage, writing, writer-editor etiquette, and related subjects.

The Old Editor does not address marital and relationship matters, dietary questions, or automobile mechanics.


To the reader: Though I announced this morning that there would be no "Old Editor" feature this week, I was brought up short by a stiff reminder from the person who sent the question below. The oversight was not, I think, from senile decay, but rather disorientation after a day of doing yard work. The electric lawnmower crapped out after a mere fifteen years, and I had to buy a new one at fabulous expense, charge batteries, &c., &c. I was so distracted that I forgot to wear a hat while finishing up the job and to my horror discover that I may have color in my face today.

On with it.

The question: "I would like to know what the difference is from 'font of wisdom' and 'fount of wisdom'... as obviously, you have some to spare."

The Old Editor answers: There is no difference, or rather, the only difference is your preference. Both words derive from the Latin fons, "fountain." In "font of wisdom" and "fount of wisdom," the sense of the word is "source."

Font is the earlier, having come into English before the twelfth century. Its early sense included the basin or receptacle into which baptismal water is poured as well as "fountain" and "source." (The receptacle for holy water is a stoup.) Fount dates from the fifteenth century.

Font is also a term from printing, identifying the set of metal pieces of various sizes and styles in a typeface. That word does not derive from fons, but from the Latin fundere, "found," "pour." The association is with the foundry in which the metal castings are produced. In traditional typesetting a distinction is made between the typeface, such as Bodoni, and the font, the set of metal characters. But in contemporary electronic writing and editing font and typeface are interchangeable.

It is typical of their cussedness that the British use fount for "typeface."

Got a question for The Old Editor? Write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com. Your name will not be used unless you specifically authorize it.