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I was accused of using a fountain pen the other day (guilty as charged). Does anyone know why it is called so? The mess of ink I get on the page, the table, my person, etc when refilling it is certainly voluminous but can scarcely be described as a fountain.

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Can't you seem to draw a connection between the mess and a fountain of ink? –  Thursagen May 25 '11 at 6:07
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@Third Idiot, yes, but I'd suggest the mess is more properly called a waterfall, or, when it settles down, a boating lake. –  Brian Hooper May 25 '11 at 19:49
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3 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The earliest meaning for fountain shown by the OED is:

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. Now arch. or poet.

and a later meaning is "reservoir". When fountain pens began to be used, most pens were a quill only and had to be dipped into an inkwell every few words in order to replenish the ink. Hence, the new style of pen was called a fountain pen since it included a reservoir.

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Last time, the pens were what is called, a "dip pen". You had to dip in the ink periodically (messier than your fountain pen) in order to write. With the invention of a nib pen, people called it a fountain pen because you no longer had to dip, it just came out as if had a fountain of ink as its source within the pen, hence the expression, "fountain pen".

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Whether it is a ball point pen or fountain pen, both have a reservoir. The ball pen works only when the point is at bottom and the reservoir is on top while writing. Ink keeps getting supplied to the ball point depending on the quality of the ink and it will not work when the ball point is on top and the reservoir is at the bottom. Whereas the fountain pen should work even when the nib is on top and the reservoir is at bottom, because the tongue under the nib suck the ink by siphon method from the reservoir. That is why it is called "fountain".

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This is incorrect in almost all ways. Many ball-point pens do work upside-down, most notably the Fisher Space Pen, used by NASA. Fountain pens surely do not, however: the liquid ink would run to the bottom end of the reservoir and no amount of capillary action can bridge an air gap. Finally, the use of the phrase "fountain pen" predates the invention of the ball-point pen by over 200 years so the etymology of the phrase can have nothing to do with ball-points. –  David Richerby Mar 2 at 10:50
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