Not originally what you almost surely think it was

Just about everyone who hears or reads the word miniatura/minature associates it with the mini- that means ‘small,’ as in mínimo/minimumminibús/minibus, and minifalda/miniskirt. In the art world a miniatura/minature is, after all, a small painting, and from that usage we’ve even applied the term to things like a miniature poodle and miniature golf. But the etymologist says “Wait a minute, not so fast,” and the etymologist is right to offer that not-so-mini warning.

To understand why a historian of words is waving not a small but a large red flag here, we have to go back to the Latin word minium, which meant ‘cinnabar, red-lead.’ Here’s what Noah Webster’s famous dictionary of 1828 said about minium, which English has borrowed and Spanish has carried forward from Latin as minio:

The red oxyd [oxide] of lead, produced by calcination. Lead exposed to air while melting is covered with a gray dusky pellicle. This taken off and agitated becomes a greenish gray powder, inclining to yellow. This oxyd [oxide], separated by sifting from the grains of lead which it contains, and exposed to a more intense heat, takes a deep yellow color, and in this state it is called massicot. The latter, slowly heated, takes a beautiful red color, and is called minium.

Now it just so happens that ancient Roman artists were fond of using minium in their work, and from that noun came the verb miniare ‘to color with minium, to paint red.’ That verb passed into Italian, where it took on the sense ‘to illustrate,’ and from the past participle arose the noun miniatura ‘illumination of manuscripts.’ Artists often included [necessarily] small figures of people in their manuscript illustrations, and so a miniatura came to be ‘a small painting,’ which is still the meaning of the term in the visual arts.

Because various other words with mini in them—related to one another but not to minium—coincidentally convey a sense of smallness, people can be forgiven for assuming, incorrectly, that miniatura (and miniature, which is the form that English borrowed from French) traces back to the same root as all those other words.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. James Brandon O'Shea
    Jan 03, 2012 @ 13:44:38

    fascinating!

    Reply

  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Jan 03, 2012 @ 16:08:08

    I’m with you on that.

    Reply

  3. jomegat
    Jan 03, 2012 @ 19:02:11

    That’s pretty cool. I wonder (but fear to assume after reading this!) if the British pronunciation of aluminum – or aluminium – derives from “minium” as well.

    Reply

  4. weisserwatercolours
    Jan 14, 2012 @ 12:28:52

    Thank you for visiting my site and discussing the origins of ‘miniatures’. At the very minimum, I learned much more than I’d previously, and appreciate your diligence. Of course, languages being what they are, they assume all the quirks and cul-de-sacs of human intelligence, as Michael Swan is always quick to point out. And English is probably the worst/best example. Thank you again for your comments!

    Reply

  5. Steve Schwartzman
    Jan 14, 2012 @ 16:01:11

    You’re welcome, and long live the quirks and cul-de-sacs of language!

    Reply

  6. shoreacres
    Jan 16, 2012 @ 20:20:50

    Re: jomegat’s comment ~

    And yet, and yet… When I was in Louisiana over Christmas, I drove past the bonfires into the industrial area of Gramercy, where Noranda Alumina has a plant.
    I didn’t have a clue what had turned the buildings, the road, the pickups in the parking lot – everything! – such a marvelous, deep, rusty red. Now I know – it was bauxite dust.

    Etymologically it may not fly, but palette-wise, that dust was cinnibar – so perhaps in that sense aluminium may be appropriate, anyway!

    Reply

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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