Monday, June 9, 2008

On the Meaning of 'Fonts'


Now, when this new blog is still a-borning, is probably the time to try and disambiguate the term 'fonts' itself a bit.

This word is an excellent example of how words change over time, even in very similar contexts. 'Back in the day' when printed material had to be typeset and cranked out of a printing press, a 'font' (of 'fount') of type was a complete set of a given typeface. More specifically, a complete set of one size of that face, though I surmise it was even then not always used in precisely that fashion. But an example of correct usage from that period might be: 'We have a complete font of eleven-point Garamond.' In practical terms, this referred to a box (or many boxes) of small lead pieces, each one with a different character in the same typeface, ready to be loaded onto rods for the printing process.

With the advent of the personal computer, particularly the Macintosh, interest in typefaces burgeoned. Now the new technology of so-called 'desktop publishing' was within reach of ordinary individuals. Word-processing programs (such as Microsoft Word) and page-layout programs (such as Adobe PageMaker and QuarkXPress) made it possible (if not necessarily mindlessly easy) for the average person to set up camera-ready copy that looked truly professional. Within a few years, such programs were being used by professionals themselves.

So, along with these technological developments in hardware and software, it was natural that the question of typeface options would arise; and arise it did. At that time, perhaps because the final product was no longer the artefact of manual labor involving physical fonts of type, the word 'font' became somewhat disengaged from the notion of a 'font' in the sense described above; instead, the word 'font' came (by metonymy, I suppose) to refer to the typeface itself. So now it is entirely correct to speak of 'fonts such as Garamond' (though it should be noted that old-timers will protest that 'typefaces such as Garamond' is the only correct usage).

As to etymology: I myself once assumed that 'font' came from the Latin fons, literally 'fountain, source' -- the idea being that that huge box of type pieces was the source of whatever printed page might eventually be produced. (That is in fact the etymology of 'font' in the sense of 'baptismal font,' the receptacle for holy water.) But it seems that 'font,' in the typographical sense, comes from another Latin word: fundere, meaning 'pour, melt' -- what one does to the lead in order to make an old-school font of type.

Again, this draws attention to the physicality of the 'font of type' as that was understood a hundred years ago -- a physicality that has all but disappeared. Fifteen or twenty years ago, one purchased computer 'fonts' on CD; there was that much vestigial physicality to them. But now one simply downloads them off the Internet to one's hard-drive. The remaining physicality, at this point, is the piece of paper onto which the text is printed; but with the increasing popularity of e-books, how much longer will even that last?

Greetings Fellow FNs

Hello all of you out there who, like me, love, nay crave, fonts and like to learn about them. Yes, I must admit it, I am a font nerd.

I have much to learn from Corax about this arcane yet interesting realm, such as, is it true that Jacques Derrida changed from Helvetica to Bembo in his last writings, and thus altered the alterity of his writing?

Or, since Socrates did not write anything, what font *would* he have used if he had written rather than pled with Euthyphro?

Seriously though, this topic has fascinated me, but I have much to learn. I am not even sure where the word "font" came from, so perhaps I must now consult the font of fonts...