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