For me, one of the saving graces of the Digital Age is that I don’t have to produce written documents that demand any skilled use of a pen. The mechanics of smearing ink onto a piece of paper have always been somewhat of a mystery to me. As a child, I remember distinctly having to practice handwriting as a skill. This was, of course, before personal computers and before even typewriters were available as a mode of writing in schools. I’d sit for hours trying to join letters together in the vain hope of ending up with legible words and sentences. Sadly, despite years of practice, I was never able to rise much higher than “legible if you squint.” The popular myth at the time was that I was clearly going to join the medical profession because all doctors were lousy at writing.
Such was the myth.
By the time I went to Grammar School, I was close to being a remedial writer – although I seemed to be OK with the actual content of my scribblings. And when I finally went to university, I invested in the popular ersatz laptop of the day – the portable typewriter. This at least helped get me past the legibility barrier and I could hand in papers that had been laboriously typed and edited using white correction fluid. There was no DELETE button on one of those babies.
All of which makes it curious that my latest technology acquisition is a fountain pen. And for younger readers, a “fountain pen” is a little like the stylus you might use on a touchscreen device, or even your finger on a smartphone. A “pen” contains a substance called “ink,” which leaves marks on paper called “writing.” Crazy, huh? Why on earth would someone do that when they can use a laptop, desktop, or pop-up on-screen keyboard?
Well, although I can’t write legibly enough for other folks to read, I can write well enough for ME to read – and for notes, jottings, scribblings, annotations etc., it is, is it not, all about me? It’s also the case that even though I am motorically challenged with script, I actually find physical writing preferable to keyboarding.
So for some years, I’ve had a dual system for recording information; high-tech aids such as laptops, Windows-based PDA’s, a Palm Pilot, and now my Droid smartphone, paired with my low-tech Moleskine notebooks and a pencil. I simply chose whichever is the easier at the time.
The new fountain pen is made by A.T. Cross and called the “Sauvage.” It’s in Azurite blue and has a crocodile skin pattern, along with a 14-carat white gold nib. Pretty cool.
The use of the word fountain to describe this type of pen is based on the notion that ink is stored in a reservoir. Now this is also true of a ball-point pen, but the “fountain pen” definition also requires there to be a nib. Ink is drawn through a slit in the nib by the dual action of capillary motion and gravity. There’s a short history of pens at Richard Conner’s Penspotters site.
The OED provides the following definition of a fountain as it was used in the 15th century:
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.
The Late Middle English fontayne came from Old French fontaine, which in turn derives from Late Latin fontana, the feminine of fontanus, meaning “pertaining to a fount.” The Latin proved to be a veritable fount for other languages; fontana is found in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, and the Welsh equivalent is ffynnawn (I’ll buy a vowel, Bob).
The Latin root font or fontis meaning “spring” is NOT the same as the word “font” that is used in modern typography. Although many of us may not be familiar with using a pen, we are all now skilled at manipulating fonts when producing documents. The fact that fountain pens and fonts are both used for writing doesn’t mean they have the same origins!
The word font was originally written as fount in the 15th century to refer to a “complete set or assortment of type of a particular face and size.”The origin, however, is from the French fonte, which comes from fondre, meaning “to cast or melt.” This relates to the fact that originally, fonts were cast from lead blocks and then place in a printing press. The word foundry comes from the same root. The original British English spelling “fount” has given way to the more common spelling of “font” since digital typefaces appeared on computers.
During their earlier progressive years, the rock band Genesis brought out their third album, Nursery Cryme, in 1971, and it included the almost 8-minute-long track, The Fountain of Salmacis. This title is taken from Greek mythological story of the nymph, Salmacis, who, attempts to seduce Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, by a pool. The seduction fails, so she leaps on him and cries out to the gods that they never be parted, whereupon the gods respond by fusing the two into one. Hermaphroditus then asks that anyone who baths in the fountain of Salmacis should suffer the same fate – to become a hermaphrodite. And so was born the Fountain of Salmacis.
The drummer for Genesis at that time was Phil Collins, who only really became a lead singer once Peter Gabriel had left in 1977. Collins then went on to enjoy a tremendously successful solo musical career. As part of that career, he played the lead role in the 1988 movie, Buster, and sang on the soundtrack a remake of the 1960’s hit, Groovy Kind of Love. This was originally done by The Mindbenders, whose lead singer was – wait for it – Wayne Fontana!
Stretching just a little, the bass player with The Mindbenders was Eric Stewart, who went on to form the successful 70’s band, 10cc. However, just before 10cc became 10cc, they were known as Hotlegs, and one of their first songs was called Waterfall – another fountain link!
I suppose I could also mention that the first two lines of Stacy’s Mom by Fountains of Wayne are;
Stacy can I come over after school
We can hang around by the pool…
But now I really am taking it too far… perhaps.