Just about everyone who hears or reads the word miniatura/minature associates it with the mini- that means ‘small,’ as in mínimo/minimum, minibús/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