April 02, 2014
‘Plume-Fontaine’, and the Stylograph
, or “Only In Canada, You Say?”
What is the French word for “fountain pen”? Some people say “porte-plume à réservoir”, or “porte-plume” and “P.P.R.” for short. And others say “stylographe” and “stylo à plume”, or “stylo” for short. Still others say “stylo à encre”, “stylo à réservoir”, “plume à réservoir”, “plume-réservoir”, and most recently “stylo-plume”. In fact, when you get right down to it, there isn’t just one French word for “fountain pen”. Instead, there are many, and some would say way too many, words for it. But what’s more, they are also the wrong words for it.
Most languages incorporate “penna”, the Latin word for quill or feather, into their word for “fountain pen”, or else a translation of the Latin word into their language. Hence we have “pen” in English, and “penne” in Italian, and we have “feder” in German, “pero” in Slavic languages, and “plume” in French. And in Japanese, the word for “brush” is used instead of “feather”, as in “10,000-year brush”, because that’s what they used instead of a pen, but let’s not get into that. However, the French word for “fountain pen” was not standardized until very late, perhaps as late as the 20th century, and so it takes many forms. Pierre Haury and Jean-Pierre Lacroux in their book, A Passion For Pens, list 25 terms, including the first six of the above terms. I gleaned the other five of the above from various dictionaries. To the above six they added nineteen obsolete and archaic terms that they collected, “a list”, as they said, “of some of the diverse names proposed in the 19th century [and earlier] by inventors and merchants passionately interested in either applied etymology or commercial rhetoric”, and which went nowhere. To this total of 30 terms, so far, could be added some very old words. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the fountain pen, such as it was, was referred to by much more colorful and metaphoric terms. One early term Haury and Lacroux include in their list is “plume-perpétuelle”, but they also use the terms “plume sans fin” and “plume éternelle” elsewhere in their book. That’s a grand total of 32 different words, so far! Haury and Lacroux go on to state, “There is no correct term; however, common usage seems to have settled the dispute. Since [“stylo”] has been the most frequently employed term, [it] is the [French] word commonly used to designate all writing instruments with nibs”. But the words “stylo” and “stylographe” are complete misnomers. So, how did this situation come about?
The earliest citation by the Oxford English Dictionary of the word “stylographic” is from the year 1808, for Ralph Wedgewood’s British patent no. 3,110 for a pantographic device called a “stylographic manifold writer”, and the earliest citations of “stylography” are for 1840, for “the art of writing with a style [or stylus]”, and an 1846 usage that refers to “a new method of engraving invented by J. C. Crossman performed by the use of a style on a tablet”. The Larousse Du XXe Siècle cites “stylographie” as an electrotyping process invented in 1846 by a Danish inventor named Schoeler. Haury and Lacroux mention French patent no. 7,007 for a pen called a “stylographe”, a pen with a nib patented in 1848 by a Parisian jeweller whose surname was Valory, and they also credit the electrotyping process “perfected by the Danes” in 1846 as the source for the derivation of the word “stylographe”, although they do not mention the inventor by name. In 1849, Elizah Jordan received US patent no. 6,883 for a rudimentary stylographic pen called an “ink pencil”, which didn’t function very well, and in 1857, Joseph Silvy’s patent no. 16,514 improved on Jordan’s pen and assigned the patent to Thomas Dobins. In 1856, Nelson Slayton patented another rudimentary stylo no. 15,622, Calvin Rogers patented his stylo precursor no. 47,577 in 1865, Gardener Kenyon patented his early stylo no. 96,598 in 1869, and in 1870, Albert Carleton patented his stylo no. 104,109, but none of these stylos amounted to anything. All of these inventions and usages, however, are not the source of the word “stylographe” as used today, and Valory’s use of the word more properly falls into that category of just another of those “diverse names proposed in the 19th century by inventors and merchants”. That honor more properly falls to the stylographic pens of the mid-1870s.
Duncan MacKinnon, a Canadian druggist and pensmith, invented his stylographic type of fountain pen in the early 1870s. He patented his pen in Canada on June 5, 1875, patent no. 4,809, and then in the UK later in 1875, no. 2,497, and in the US in 1876, no. 174,965, although he didn’t refer to it as a “stylograph” in his patents. In his first ads for the pen, he referred to it as a “fluid pencil”, or “ink pencil”, since in appearance it closely resembled a sharpened wooden pencil. Adding one small part, a spring, the A. T. Cross company copied MacKinnon’s pen and patented their version, patent no. 199,621, only as late as Jan 29, 1878. In their ads late in 1878, A. T. Cross started calling the pen a “stylographic fountain pen”, or a “stylographic pen”, or a “stylograph” for short. James P. Maginnis, in his definitive Cantor Lectures on the early UK patents for steel, reservoir, stylographic, and fountain pens, writes that Charles Woodbury Robinson, an American who imported and introduced many of the early American stylographs to the UK, “claims . . . to have been the first to suggest the word ‘stylographic’ as applied to these pens”, and that A. T. Cross “was the first maker to adopt the name”. The first US patents for “Stylographic Fountain-Pens” that referred to them as such in the patent were, however, MacKinnon’s July 15, 1879 reissue of his 1876 US patent, reissue no. 8,802, and his improvement and modification of his 1876 patent US patent no. 217,888 from July 29, 1879. By the 1880s, it was the generally accepted word for this type of pen, but only in North America and the British Isles. Elsewhere, there was some confusion.
Preceding Waterman’s pen by almost a decade, the stylographic pen was the first successful fountain pen of any type to be widely popular with the public. During this ten-year period, there was a surge in the US patents for stylographs that dwarfed the numbers of patents for traditional fountain pens. And because of the accompanying wide use of the word “stylograph”, this word came to be closely associated with ordinary fountain pens, or nibbed writing instruments. Thus, we can credit Duncan MacKinnon with the invention of the stylographic fountain pen, and we can credit, or blame, A. T. Cross for, if not coining, then at least popularizing, the word “stylograph”, which caused all the subsequent confusion. In France, the word “stylographe” also came to be confused or mistaken for the word “fountain pen”, or to be so closely associated with “fountain pen” that it was seen to be indistinguishable from it, and so it was adopted, however wrongly, as the word for “fountain pen”. This misnomer is all based on a misunderstanding, a failure to make a distinction between different types of pens. You can no more call a stylograph a fountain pen, a writing instrument with a nib, than you can call a fountain pen a stylograph, a writing instrument with a stylus. If the French want to call a fountain pen a stylographe, or a stylo à plume, or a stylo à réservoir, or a stylo à encre, or just a stylo, then what do they call a stylographic pen, a stylo à style, or a stylo à stylo, or a stylo à stylus? And almost the same goes for the Italian word for a fountain pen, “penne stilografiche”, which is a self-contradiction. Is it a nibbed “pen”, or is it a stylused “stylograph”? It can’t be both. That would be like saying “plume à stylo”!
The problem with the terms for “fountain pen” in French and Spanish and Italian and probably many other languages, too, is that they leave out the distinguishing and most important feature of that type of pen, the fact that it has a reservoir, or source, or fountain in its barrel. It has now become tradition to call that reservoir a fountain–a perpetual, never-ending, ever-flowing fountain. Some of the early ads for fountain pens touted the fact that they carried their own inkwells in their handles, and many of the ads used some variation of the ad line that you would have to “dip no more”. That’s what is missing from those terms in many other languages, that long-standing tradition of the origin of the term. And all this ambiguity of terms started because of the term “stylographic fountain pen”. The stylograph preceded the fountain pen in popularity and functionality briefly in the late 1870s and early 1880s, and for a brief period in the 1880s, the fashion was to call all fountain pens stylographs. Thomas A. Hearson’s UK patent for a fountain pen, no. 1,419 from Mar 31, 1881, French patent no. 144,886 from Sept 17, 1881, and US patent no. 252,034 from Jan 10, 1882, was manufactured by Thomas De La Rue & Co. in the early 1880s, and as an example of the backlash against the stylograph, the 1883 Thomas De La Rue ads cite the Hearson patent, calling the fountain pen “The Anti-Stylograph”. The term “anti-stylograph” was even briefly used in the 1880s by the general public as an alternative term for “fountain pen”, but luckily that ugly, reverse-engineered word, or retronym didn’t catch on universally. The term “stylograph”, however, did persist in some European languages as a catch-all term for any pen with a fountain, perhaps as an apocope, a shortening of the term “stylographic fountain pen”, until it finally became synonymous with “fountain pen”.
But there is a word that hasn’t been mentioned so far. Haury and Lacroux go through their long list of alternate terms, but they do not mention the obvious one. In 1723, when Edmund Stone translated Nicolas Bion’s book on scientific instruments that included a “plume sans fin”, he rendered the term in English as “fountain-pen”. He didn’t coin the word, however, for the word “fountain-pen” has been documented in print as far back as 1710, according to the O.E.D. So, how about the obvious translation of that word back into French, “plume-fontaine”? Where is this word in that long list? Instead, the French prefer the term “stylo”.
Well, there is a solution, and it comes from Quebec, or Francophone Canada, or Canadian-French, or the official governmental French of a bilingual Canada. In Francophone Canada, the French word for “fountain pen” already is “plume-fontaine”, and has been for quite some time already. Calling it a uniquely Canadian regionalism, the Trésor De La Langue Française tells us that only in Canada do we say “plume-fontaine”. The earliest citations that the Trésor gives come from the 1970s and 80s, but there are some much earlier usages documented in print. The first use of the word “plumes-fontaines” is actually in the French patents. William O. Grover’s patent no. 19,513 is for Un Système De Plumes Dits “Plumes-Fontaines”, from June 24, 1854, but it’s the only use in the French patents. It’s a single occurrence, a hapax legomenon. It also appears in the Canadian patents, but with more regularity. Starting in 1824, the first series of Canadian patents were written up and printed only in English, but when the second series started in 1873, the name of the invention was rendered in French as well as English. Now, it just so happens that the first patent for a pen after this change was implemented was the patent for Duncan MacKinnon’s stylographic pen in 1875. And although in English the pen is called a “Combined Pen and Ink-Holder”, thus showing from the awkward designation that this type of pen was perceived to be something totally new and different, in French it is called a “Plume-fontaine”, perhaps one of the earliest uses of the word in an English-language publication. This usage appeared in the August 1875 issue of the Canadian Patent Office Record, and it was either adopted into the technical language of patents from prior usage in everyday language, or else it crept its way from the patent usage into everyday language. Whether it is an origination from the one side or an adoption from the other remains unresolved, until we stumble upon some other early uses of the word. But somewhere between the technical accuracy of official language and the spontaneous creativity of common language, one can arrive at everyday words that can be used without ambiguity. This word remained in official use by the Patent Office as the French translation of “fountain pen” until 1909, when the official designation was changed to “Plume-réservoir”. This new term remained in use until 1923, when the Canadian Patent Office bowed to the pressure of the international Francophone community and switched to the term “Stylo”, and in 1925 it switched to the term “Stylographe”.
Locally in Francophone Canada, ordinary people continued to use “plume-fontaine”, but internationally the Francophone community had settled on the other terms, and despite the persisting regional difference, the Patent Office chose to go with the internationally accepted terms. “Common usage [in the rest of the world] seems to have settled the dispute” for the Canadian Patent Office, even though it has not settled the dispute for the rest of the Canadian French-speaking community. And why not, when speaking French anywhere else in the world, use that word as well? It could be seen as a trans-lingual retronym, translated by Stone from Bion, and then borrowed from the English and put back into the French again. It’s such an obvious and commodious solution to the problem. It’s not a Quebecois or French-Canadian word, and it’s certainly not Joual. It’s a Canadian-French word, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. It takes a bilingual country to come up with that kind of solution. We Canadians are always cutting to the chase.
But why do the French avoid this obvious term? Didn’t the solution occur to them, or were they studiously trying to avoid it? Was it seen as a too-close translation of the English word?
Was it seen as caving in to the English language, and were they trying to create their own uniquely Gallic alternatives? This sounds like governmental interference in lingual affairs. This term is certainly not as bad as “un bon boss”, or “un hot dog”, or “le poke check”. At least it’s still tout en français. Perhaps as a reciprocal gesture to the French language the English language could adopt the word “plume” in the metaphoric sense of “to pen” or “to write”, so that the phrase “he penned his name” would now become “he plumed his name”, to borrow a phrase from James Joyce. One could even say “Shakespeare plumed the depths of the English language”, just as Montaigne plumed the depths of the French Language, but que sçais-je? And “to ply the pen” would become “to ply the plume”. And “flights of the pen” could be called “airy plumeflights”, also from Joyce. Alright, enough of this wordplay. It’s time to stop this joie of living and stop jouering with the Joual. It’s time to get down to lingual les affaires and adopt the obvious term. The answer to the question with which I opened this article is the word “plume-fontaine”.
[An earlier version of this article titled “Only In Canada, You Say?” first appeared in Stylophiles, June 1998, The Pennant, Fall 1998, and on Bruce Marshall’s website since July 1998.]
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