A typeface is not a font. A font is not a typeface. It’s been said before, but confusion still resigns supreme; even the Online Etymology Dictionary and the holders of the rights to Georgia get it wrong. So, at the risk of stating the obvious, but in the hope that someone might find this useful, I’m going to attempt a little disambiguation.
I think of a typeface as the design of a type family. Like every family, type families have names. An example of a type family name is Georgia. Georgia is a type family — a typeface — not a font.
Typeface = a type family’s design
In many non-European cultures like the Chinese, the family name comes before the personal name. For example, my Chinese name is Tan Tek Whah. “Tan” is my family name. “Tek” is my generation name. “Whah” is my first name. The last two are identify me personally. The same is true for fonts. They have a family name (typeface) and personal names (style, variant, size) that identify them uniquely within that family.
To understand why a font is not a typeface, it’s useful to know where the term came from. Here’s a (very abridged) bit of history drawn from various sources:
Font (or previously, fount) is derived from a Middle French word, fonte, meaning something that has been melted. In type founding, metal was melted then poured into a hand mould with a matrix, to cast each individual piece of movable type, known as a sort. Font, fount and fonte have a common ancestor in the Latin word, fons, meaning spring or source (of water). They are all related to the word, fountain. So, now you might be able to see why “font” is a word that describes a variant of a typeface, and a container for casting water on Christian babies’ heads.
Everytime a specific variant of a typeface was cast at a specific weight, a font was created. Therefore, a font is a particular casting of a typeface belonging to that type family.
Font = one member of a type family
In my mind I think of a font as a variant of a typeface.
Spot the heading error in the Georgia page by Ascender Corp, licensees of the Georgia typeface.
Using the Georgia typeface example, the “Georgia Regular”, “Georgia Italic”, “Georgia Bold”, and “Georgia Bold Italic” in my library are all fonts of the Georgia typeface.
Wait though, we’re not done! A font was more granular than just the variant of a typeface: Each size of those variants would, historically, have being cast individually. Therefore, a font is actually any variant in a typeface’s size and style. For example: “9pt Georgia Bold Italic” is a font as is “12pt Georgia Bold Italic”, and “9pt Georgia regular”.
Electronically evolved terms
These days, rather than casting specific sizes, we hit a button and the typeface variant changes size. Size has ceased to be so important because changing it has become so easy, and we don’t have to buy typefaces at different sizes. So these days, even people who understand clearly what the word “font” means have been known to use it to just describe a variant like Georgia Italic, or Helvetica Bold Condensed Oblique without reference to a particular size. That seems like a fairly logical evolution of the term to me.
Why is this stuff important?
Well, compared to world peace, it’s not. However, nomenclature is important because being understood is important. . There’s another reason too. I’ve been delving into the font module of CSS for a series of articles and reminded myself how confused the terminology was. The absence of the term, “typeface“ and certain uses of “font”, seemed strange to me;
font-variant in particular makes no sense.
Hopefully this explanation makes a little more sense, or at the very least, gave you an insight into Chinese naming conventions.