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