When I worked in black and white photography in the 1970s, I sometimes put a print into a sepia bath to tone it brown, a practice that originated in the 19th century and was common then. Only recently did I learn the etymology of the word sepia: Middle English took it from Latin sēpia and at first retained the original meaning of ‘cuttlefish.’ That sense has disappeared, replaced by the current one of ‘a dark brown ink’ or ‘the color of that ink,’ the connection being that people used to prepare ink of that color from the secretion of a cuttlefish.

Spanish sepia means the same as its English counterpart but can also still mean ‘cuttlefish.’ In addition, Spanish has created the doublet jibia, which designates the animal only (or specifically its shell) but doesn’t refer to sepia ink or its color.

The American Heritage Dictionary notes that Latin had taken sēpia from Greek sēpiā ‘cuttlefish,’ a word that may have been related to the verb sēpein ‘to make rotten.’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 07, 2014 @ 22:39:18

    I once had a friend whose pet bird worked its way through a cuttlebone about every three months, but I didn’t know a thing about the cuttlefish, or its ink. I really do like sepia images. It’s interesting to know how they were created, back in the days when inks and dyes were natural.


  2. Steve Schwartzman
    Jul 08, 2014 @ 07:43:54

    There’s no need for cuttlefish or chemicals now, when so many digital photography programs offer an option to transform a color photograph to sepia in a matter of seconds. That said, I see many more photographs turned to black and white than to sepia.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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