fonds

Do you know what it is like to use a fonds? Have you ever dug deep into a fonds? Do you agree with respect des fonds?

Do you know what a fonds is? 

Are you wondering why I keep using the singular article a with an evidently plural word, fonds?

Fields often have concepts and terms of which they are particularly fond. Often these are things that within the field are treated as “everybody knows” things – assimilated as part of the base collective understanding, and referred to without explanation – while to outsiders they are unknown, and the terms may even seem jarring or self-regardingly counterintuitive. 

Such a one, for archivists, is a fonds.

A fonds, in brief, is a collection of documents having the same source (person or organization). The principle of respect des fonds is that you keep a fonds together, in the order the originator put them in. So, for instance, if you have a child, and your child draws pictures and writes things and so on, and gives them to you or puts them in scrapbooks or whatever, when you collect them all without re-ordering them, taking any out, or adding anything from any other source to them, you have a fonds. And as long as that child keeps drawing and writing and so on, you can keep adding to it.

This also means that if you have two people who write letters to each other, a collection of all the letters of both is not a fonds, and a collection of all the letters and papers in possession of one or the other is not a fonds (it is, rather, to use the archival term, a collection – oh, wait, I already called it that). A fonds for each person would include the letters by that person… and not the letters in response.

In truth, a fonds is a more effective approach for a public entity that principally emits documents, such as a government department. If you have every single damn missive uttered forth by the Ontario Department of Widget Frobulation, for instance – every white paper, every manual, every ad, every sticker, every abusive letter from the assistant director, every annual supplier holiday party invitation – that is a fonds, but it must not contain so much as one single unattached complaint letter from a concerned taxpayer, nor even a copy of that seven-part investigative exposé in the Globe and Mail. And if you’re doing your job according to Circular no. 14, you’ll keep all those documents in the order in which they were organized by the Department, even when it went through that bad period where the two chief administrators hated each other and had starkly different ideas of proper organization.

Circular no. 14? Oh, yes. The principle of respect des fonds does not (as many people think) come from the TV series Happy Days; it is typically attributed to a document issued by Natalis de Wailly, head of the Administrative Section of the Archives nationales de France, in 1814. It seems M. de Wailly was sick and tired of dealing with many and varied and frankly capricious systems of organizations of papers. He said, “Right, that’s it, we’re keeping stuff from the same source together, in the same order the source organized it. Respect the Fonz fonds!” Now, he may not truly have been the first person to have that idea and insist on it (really, it would be surprising if he had been). But he was the prime vector, and Circular no. 14 was the Love Potion no. 9 of archives (but more long-lasting).

OK, fine, all of that, but I know what you really want to know: the same thing I wanted to know. “Whaddya mean, a fonds?”

Like, why use that plural, right? Is there some kind of hidden agenda?

Well, that would be appropriate, at least, since agenda is plural in Latin (it means ‘things to do’) but we use it as a singular in English. But no. It’s a bit more like those names that look plural but are actually singular. You know, Jeeves, Giles, James… but in fact it’s most like a name such as Ivars Taurins or Arturs Ozolins. That’s not to say it’s a Latvian term (it’s not), but the s isn’t there by accident. It’s left over from when it had a specific basis.

Basis? Foundation. Fundament. Or, in Latin, fundus. Which passed into French as fond, alternately spelled fonds; the two spellings were in free variation for a long time. As Littré says: “L’s de ce mot n’est pas autre chose que l’s du nominatif dans l’ancien français, qui est restée au mot comme dans fils. La distinction qu’on a essayé d’établir entre fond et fonds à l’aide de cette s accidentelle est tout à fait ignorée des auteurs un peu anciens.” Translation: “The s of this word is nothing other than the s of the nominative in Old French, which has stayed on the word as on fils [‘son’, from filius]. The distinction that has been imposed between fond and fonds with the help of this accidental s is entirely ignored by earlier authors.”

But since about the 1600s, fond has been the word for ‘base’, ‘bottom’, ‘foundation’, ‘depths’, et cetera, while fonds, singular, has been the word for ‘capital’, ‘resources’, ‘fund’, and so on. (Littré gives these nice examples for the figurative use: “Un grand fonds de savoir. Un fonds de malice. Il a pour vous un grand fonds d’estime.” In translation: “A great fund of knowledge. A fund of malice. He has for you a great fund of esteem.”)

So, in truth, since fond (the French word, not the English one, which is an old English word originally meaning ‘foolish’ or ‘naïve’) and fonds come from the same source, they should be, on principle, kept together. And, in the opinion of Littré, “Le mieux serait de supprimer l’s de fonds, et de ne faire qu’un seul mot de ce qui n’en est réellement qu’un”: “The best thing to do would be to get rid of the s on fonds and make a single word of what really is only one word.”

But would that truly be respect des fonds?

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