A week ago at this time I was watching the classic 1942 movie Mrs. Miniver on television. The next morning, while looking up something else, I discovered that miniver is a word, not just a name. Merriam-Webster gives its definition as ‘a white fur worn originally by medieval nobles and used chiefly for robes of state.’ The origin is Anglo-Norman menever, a compound of menu, meaning ‘small’ (yes, this is the same menú/menu that lists all the small, i.e. individual, items you can order in a restaurant) and vair, a word still in use in English—barely—that means ‘fur,’ originally ‘squirrel fur.’ Vair traces back to Latin varius, whose senses included ‘diverse, different, changing, varying, various, variegated.’ That’s also obviously the source of the adjective vario/various and the derived verb variar/vary. The semantic connection to vair appears to be, based on the definition in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, that the kind of squirrel fur in question was of varied white and gray.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

    Mar 22, 2013 @ 19:50:29

    I once read that Cinderella’s slippers were originally ermine, not glass, the confusion coming from mistaking “vair” for “verre,” but Snopes says it’s not true:


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 24, 2013 @ 13:32:13

      I’d heard that supposed explanation, too, but as Snopes says so well: “The principal difficulty with the standard explanation is that pantoufle de verre appears in Perrault’s original text, so this is definitely not a question of mistranslation.” I’ve often wondered in cases like this why the person(s) offering the easily disproved “explanation” never bothered to check original sources, but I might as well wonder what the meaning of life is.


  2. shoreacres
    Mar 22, 2013 @ 21:58:05

    I’ve heard of “Mrs. Miniver”, but never have seen the film. After reading a synopsis, I think I should remedy that. My first thought was of Miniver Cheevy, a (far) less attractive individual.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 24, 2013 @ 13:35:49

      I was so locked into Mrs. Miniver from having just seen the movie again that I never thought about that child of scorn named Miniver Cheevy, whose namesake poem I read in high school or college. Thanks for the reminder.


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