“Font” (as in typography) comes from the Old French fondre, meaning “melt,” from the Latin fundere “melt, cast, pour out,” as in the pouring of metal into moulds. It is a nominalization of “found,” referring to the process of manufacturing letters and printing components at early typefoundries.
The word “font” arose in the 1680s to refer to “a complete set of characters of a particular face and size of type.” It was first used by European type foundries, which manufactured metal and wood typefaces for printing.
The most common way to create text prints was via a “movable type” system—that is, the process of using movable components (like wood or metal type blocks) to create the elements on a page, which were imprinted onto paper using a letterpress.
The earliest movable type printing press technology was developed by the Han Chinese innovator Bi Sheng, who used ceramic porcelain china materials to print books and also pioneered the use of wooden movable type. Other Chinese inventors would come to print with bronze and other metals.
About 400 years after Bi Sheng’s invention, Johannes Gutenberg would famously create another version of a metal movable-type printing press. But printing would not explode in Europe until 1476 (about 35 years later), when William Caxton introduced the printing press to London, a move that would jettison the city into a booming hub for the industry.
At that time, molten metal alloys—the most effective of which were developed by Gutenberg and were comprised of lead, tin and antimony—were cast in moulds to create each character for the press. This process was called “typefounding,” or, more generally, “founding,” from the Old French fondre “pour out, melt, smelt,” which in turn came from the Latin fundere “melt, cast, pour out.” (You might recognize the same origin in the deliciously melty word “fondue” as well.) †
Hence, the word “font” (originally “fount”) is a nominalization of “found” in the metal-casting sense—and the businesses that created movable type components were known as “foundries.”
Despite the fact that they are often used interchangeably today (primarily thanks to the way new technology has blurred the need for a distinction), a “font” and a “typeface” are very different things to someone who works with movable type. “Font” describes a full set of metal characters, which comes in a box like the one above. “Typeface” describes the cohesive overall look of the font—so you might have a font (full set) of the typeface Helvetica, or Garamond, or Times New Roman. ††
† Note: Fundere is the past participle of fusus, not fundus, which is the origin of “found” in the sense of “establish.” Two distinct origins.
†† The word “type” predates “font” by about 200 years, and means “symbol, emblem” from the Latin typus (figure, image, form, kind), which in turn is from the Greek typos, “a blow, dent, impression, mark, effect of a blow; figure in relief, image, statue; anything wrought of metal or stone; general form, character; outline, sketch.” So a typeface is literally the “face” (the symbol or shape on the top) of the metal or wood block that makes the impression on the paper when printing. This sense of “blow” also remains when we talk about typing, or striking the keys, on a typewriter or computer.