Water source of questionable information

This New Scientist cartoon by Tom Gauld:

Five nominals of the form N1 of Mod N2. The first panel has the model for the other four: the metaphorical idiom family fount of all N2, where N2 refers to a kind of information. The last four are somewhat snide plays on this original. In effect, the cartoon supplies a template for generating fresh — in two senses —  metaphorical idiom families on the basis of an attested one.

The parts of the template N1 of Mod N2. In the model, the N1 fount refers to a source of water — as do the nouns riffing on it: tap, bucket, sprinkler, puddle. All these N1s are SG C (singular count) nouns. Unlike the elevated, poetic fount, the riff nouns refer to everyday, mundane, sources of water, lending an overblown, somewhat silly tone to the full NPs.

In the model, the N2 knowledge refers to a kind of information — as do the nouns riffing on it: insight, trivia, facts, statistics. The N2s are of various C/M types: knowledge is SG M[ass]; insight is SG C; trivia, facts, and statistics are PL C.

In the model, the Mod all is a determiner, while in the riffs it’s an adjective: occasional, useless, dubious, misleading.

The model treats the object of of, the information nominal all knowledge, positively, while the others treat the information as questionable: at best dubious (occasional insight, dubious facts) or flatly without value (useless trivia, misleading statstics). So the riffs have an ironic/sarcastic, or at least somewhat snide, tone.

The imagery is especially nice: tap of occasional insight brings to mind a slow drip, drip drip of thoughts from a spigot; bucket of useless trivia suggests a pail of insignificant stuff that has somehow just accumulated; sprinkler of dubious facts evokes a device that sprays manufactured news everywhere, on everything; and puddle of misleading statistics conjures up a muddy mess of data.

The model idiom family. From the Cambridge on-line dictionary:

noun fount, in the fount of all knowledge, gossip, wisdom, etc.: ​

literary or humorous the person or place from which all information on a particular subject comes

The fount/font thing. This dictionary lists only fount as N1 (similarly in some other dictonaries), but font is also attested in this idiom. From my 3/28/05 Language Log posting “Chomping at the font”:

On to fount/font. My story here is that these two nouns, both traceable back to Latin fons ‘spring, fountain’, … specialized, in different directions, with fount tending to be reserved for poetic and metaphorical uses (essentially, a “fancy” shortening of fountain in the extended senses ‘source, hoard’) and font largely reserved for baptismal fonts and similar pools of water. Dictionaries of quotations support this story: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (14th ed., 1968) has three cites for fount ‘fountain, source’ and one for font ‘pool’ (from Tennyson’s The Princess); the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (3rd. ed., 1979) has one cite for fount ‘fountain, source’ and two for font (the Tennyson, plus one for a baptismal font); and the Chambers Dictionary of Quotations (1996) has one metaphorical fount (of pride) and the Tennyson “Nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font”.

Still, the cites in the larger dictionaries indicate that over the years there have been occasional metaphorical uses of font, which now seem to be overtaking fount at a great rate (from AHD4: “She was a font of wisdom and good sense”). This should not be entirely surprising, since fount is so strikingly “poetic” in tone, while font has concrete uses, with reference to baptismal fonts and, most important, to type fonts. The font of type font has a different history from the occurrences of font I’ve been talking about, but since the advent of computer typesetting and word processors, pretty much everybody has become (only too) familiar with the word. It’s familiar and frequent, and even though it doesn’t make perfect sense in expressions like font of wisdom, it has those other virtues; after all, fount doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. (To make all of this even more complex, apparently British usage favored type fount until fairly recently, when the American usage with font swamped it. This suggests that metaphorical uses of font originated mostly in the U.S.) It’s also possible that baptismal font, with its associations to beginnings, contributed to the spread of metaphorical font.

In any case, we’ve now reached the state where lots of speakers, especially Americans and especially younger ones, use only font for the metaphorical senses and find fount bizarre and fountain perhaps a bit too literal). Every once in a while, one of these speakers will report with surprise their discovery that their font might be an eggcorn … And it probably was, once.



Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: