Fount of Wisdom

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Kathryn Doyle writes:

I’ve heard or read this expression and it’s taken up residence in my subconscious. But I’m not finding it in Webster’s. Where did it come from? Is it font or fount or do I need to exorcize it? Ex. “Font of wisdom”or “Font of information.”

My immediate response was “fount, of course!”

Fount is a poetic form of fountain. The expression “fount of wisdom” immediately makes me think of this quotation from Alexander Pope:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

Pope was writing for readers who knew their classics. Pieria is

a district of the Greek region of Macedonia just north of Mount Olympus, regarded as the home of the Muses in Greek and Roman mythology. Hence: of or relating to the Muses, or (by extension) poetry and learning; poetic. Pierian spring n. the fountain or source of poetic inspiration (usu. in figurative context). –OED

So, “fount of wisdom” is the only correct spelling for me, but the answer to Kathryn’s question is not so simple, as can be seen in these definitions:

fount: [fount] 1. a. A spring or source of water issuing from the earth and collecting in a basin, natural or artificial; also, the head-spring or source of a stream or river. Now arch. or poet. exc. fig.

font: font  [fŏnt] 1. “basin,” O.E. font, from L. fons (gen. fontis) “fountain” (see fountain), especially in M.L. fons baptismalis “baptismal font.” 2. “typeface,” 1683, from M.Fr. fonte, fem. pp. of fondre “melt” (see found (2)). So called because all the letters were cast at the same time. (In England usually fount.)

Since even a “font of type” can be spelled as a “fount of type” in England, I don’t think that any hard and fast rule can apply.

Image and pronunciation can probably be allowed to prevail.

Do you see the figurative source of wisdom or information as a welling spring of water, or as a filled basin?

Are you saying the word with the /ow/ sound of fount or the short o of font?

I’ll stick with fount, but I’d hesitate to fault the speaker/writer who goes with font.

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9 thoughts on “Fount of Wisdom”

  1. “Font of wisdom” seems to me to make the same kind of sense as “type font,” meaning, cast at the same time.

    Wisdom is not a matter of accumulation of knowledge, but of insight, often coming as a holisitic vision or mentation — cast all at once.

  2. I think of font and fount more prosaically. A font contains the water or inspiration or whatever resource you go to the font for.

    A fount is filling with the water or inspiration or whatever. It often overflows; in displays the overflow is recirculated to make a dramatic display of just how much overabundance is celebrated there. Yes, I consider the splashing, bubbling fount, at least the man made fountains, to be spin control. Beyond the music and art in the artificially produced sprays and splashes, is the symbolism of conspicuous consumption.

    If I consider wisdom to be a bowl that I could dip into or taste, that would be a font of wisdom. If wisdom were an ever-arriving stream that I might dibble and dabble in as I wish – that would be a fount of wisdom.

    Or I might ponder the evidence of my senses (Sharon Lee, Steve Miller, Scout’s Progress, an sf novel). If acceleration is the rate of change of motion, perhaps wisdom is what we learn from what we have learned, the mathematical derivative of information.

  3. Huh. I always thought the short form of “fountain” was spelled “font” and therefore that the expression was “font of wisdom” – but that “font” in that context meant “fountain,” not “basin.”

  4. Actually, Maeve, my dictionary* lists one definition of “font” as “[Poet.] a fountain or spring”, along with the expected meanings of bowl or basin for holding water. This backs up my usage.

    I have always spoken the expression as “a font of wisdom” (with the short /ah/ sound of font), meaning that the person or thing was a source of wisdom, as a spring is the source of a river. It always seemed a sort of poetical usage to start with.

    -Amazing Blair
    * Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, Second College Edition, (c) 1970 by The World Publishing Company

  5. for me, wisdom is not something that emits from a source but is collected. it’s the result of knowledge and experience, so it comes from the mellowing of what we’ve taken in, not something we can simply gather up from its source.

    so, i’ve always understood the term to be font of wisdom, as in basin.

  6. But font doesn’t mean fountain. Fount does. Font means basin. It is derived from a word that meant fountain, but it does not mean that.

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