March 28, 2005

Chomping at the font

chompfont My last -- both most recent and probably also final -- inventory of  (possible) eggcorns elicited a certain amount of e-mail, almost all of it about two items in the inventory: chomp at the bit (for champ at the bit) and font of knowledge (for fount of knowledge).  (In the second, knowledge stands in for a variety of abstract nouns.)  My correspondents -- in alphabetical order, Rich Alderson, Jim Apple, John Cowan, Chris Shea, Wendy Sonnenberg, and Nathan Vaillette -- point out, about one or both of these usages, that the items have been alternatives for a long time (since Early Modern English or even Late Old English); that most current dictionaries list them as alternatives; and that the Google numbers and the correspondents' own usage favor the variants I've labeled as eggcorns (Vaillette gets around 79k hits for chomping at the bit vs. 30k hits for champing at the bit, a usage he reports he'd never even heard of before, and around 8.5k for font of knowledge, which is what he says, vs. 7.2k for fount of knowledge).

I grant all this, but still maintain that both expressions had an eggcorn moment in their history, though they have now become "nearly mainstream", as we say on the eggcorn database.  One of the lessons here is that dictionaries, even very good ones, don't -- in fact, can't -- tell you everything you need to know.

In both cases, the words (champ/chomp, fount/font) have a history as alternatives, but then differentiated in their uses.  Relatively recently, though, one (chomp, font) has been overtaking the other (this is the possibly-eggcorn phase); in both cases, the more familiar, and more frequent, item has been replacing the less familiar/frequent (but phonologically similar) one, to the point where for many people the replacements are the ONLY available forms.

Even very good dictionaries are not particularly good at telling you relative frequencies of usages at different periods -- actually, such information is very hard to come by -- so there's only so much you can conclude from their entries.

For champ/chomp the history is easy to work out: chomp continued to be available as a verb meaning 'munch on, bite', while champ became confined to the idiom champ at the bit 'be restive' and perhaps a few other related idioms, like champing to [get home] 'anxious to [get home]'.  Until very recently, idiom dictionaries listed only champ at the bit (if they had the idiom at all): see the BBI Combinatory Dictionary of English (1986, corrected 1993); NTC's American Idioms Dictionary (2nd ed., 1994); the Makkai et al. Dictionary of American Idioms (3rd ed., 1995); and the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms (1999), which lists chafe as a variant of champ.  Some general dictionaries -- the British Chambers Dictionary (1998) and the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed., 2000) --  continue to distinguish the specialized champ in champ at the bit from the munching sense, for which chomp is listed as a variant.

Now, here's a situation that's just ripe for reshaping.  The now very rare verb champ occurs in only one or two idioms, where its meaning contribution is unclear.  The phonologically similar verb chomp, however, is available, and makes some sense.  (Replacing champ by chomp actually revives the original metaphor in the at the bit expression, though most current speakers won't appreciate that.)  So chomp spreads rapidly, and quickly becomes just the way you say this.

This change is now recognized in some reference works.  The Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus (2004), in particular, has a usage note on chomp, champ (p. 140), which recognizes the chomp at the bit wording as an American variant but claims that it's slightly less common in contemporary print sources than the champ variant.  Pretty much the same discussion appears in Garner's Modern American Usage (2003), also from Oxford University Press.

Dictionaries are, for good reason, slow to recognize changes.  My guess is that Garner and the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus are just a bit behind the times.

On to fount/font.  My story here is that these two nouns, both traceable back to Latin fons 'spring, fountain', also 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 (as Philip Hofmeister did in e-mail to me the week before last).  And it probably was, once.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 28, 2005 03:29 PM