Here’s how the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española defines the noun díptica: ‘Conjunto formado por dos tablas plegables, con forma de libro, en las que la primitiva Iglesia acostumbraba anotar en dos listas pareadas los nombres de los vivos y los muertos por quienes se había de orar.’ English shares that definition of the term as it was used in Christianity, but the word goes even farther back. The first account of diptych included in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica was:

A tablet made with a hinge to open and shut, used in the Roman empire for letters (especially love-letters), and official tokens of the commencement of a consul’s, praetor’s or aedile’s term of office. The latter variety of diptych was inscribed with the magistrate’s name and bore his portrait, and was issued to his friends and the public generally. They were made of boxwood or maple. More costly examples were in cedar, ivory, silver or sometimes gold. They were often sent as New Year gifts.

Beyond the use of díptica/diptych as a historical term, we use díptico/diptych [note the changed gender in the Spanish] for “a picture or series of pictures painted on two tablets connected by hinges.’ English even allows for unhinging the two panels, or for never having resorted to hinges in the first place, so that a diptych can be more generally ‘a work made up of two matching parts; anything consisting of two parallel or contrasting parts.’ For plenty of examples of that extended sense, you can have a look at the ones that Wordnik provides.

As for etymology, díptica/diptych goes back to Late Latin diptycha, from Greek diptukha ‘folded into two [parts],’ from di- ‘two’ and ptukhe ‘fold.’

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. WordSnooper.com
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 19:47:57

    What a fascinating history of the diptych. Come to think of it, my husband and I often send diptychs with seasonal images and greetings as a New Year gifts. Although they’re sometimes gilded, they’re made of the less costly paper.


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Jun 12, 2012 @ 20:22:58

    So you two have been continuing a tradition that goes back at least as far as the Romans: how’s that for longevity? In fact the Romans had a saying, nihil novum sub sole, which means that there’s nothing new under the sun.


  3. shoreacres
    Jun 19, 2012 @ 22:39:52

    I noticed something with this post. I speak what’s called “dock Spanish” and specialize in about six phrases like No agua, por favor! But looking at your introductory paragraph and with no sneaking a peek at a dictionary or google translate, I get: “Conjoined form for the tables [?], in the form of a book, in which the early Church [?] wrote in two lists [?] the numbers of the living and the dead for which to pray.”

    On the one hand, pretty bad. On the other, a completely amazing bit of proof that a few months of even the most casual exposure to another language can begin the process of understanding. I might see if I can’t convince some of the guys down on the dock to go ahead and speak Spanish with me – it will provide them some amusement, and it might get me to the point where I can communicate with the ones who truly speak no English.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 19, 2012 @ 23:08:47

      Spanish conjunto is a noun meaning ‘group’ or ‘set,’ so the definition refers to a set of two tablets that fold together in the way the pages of a book do. The diptych had two paired lists of the living and the dead for whom to pray, as you noted.

      So yes, a few months of even casual exposure can carry you a long way. As for the guys down on the dock, if they don’t speak an educated form of Spanish you or I might have trouble catching what they say, but there’s nothing to be lost in trying, and definitely the chance for some mutual amusement.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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