Bill Long 6/8/06
Nearing the End
We are reaching the end of the dictionary, and I still feel as if I am plodding along, only scratching the minutest particles off of the surface of life. In this essay I will focus on words beginning with "un" to "va." Among the words I would eventually like to discuss are: unbe, unclubbable, uncorseted, uncus, unnilquadium, unweeting, upas, urease, ureotelic, urochordate, urodele, uropygial, urticate, uvea, uvula, vagal and vagile. I also like the three very useful words unciform (or uncinate), urceloate, and ungulate. But, as luck would have it, I think I will begin with a word familiar to me for more than 30 years, which others may not know: uncial.
Uncial (Manuscript), from Uncia
I first learned the term uncial in the mid-1970s when I began to study ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts. We divided the world into manuscripts in uncial or majuscule script, and manuscripts in minuscule script. The former were written in capital letters and were older (early middle ages). But it was only in the last day or so that I have been able to sort out some things about the word uncial. The Latin word uncia, according to the OLD, stands for the 12th part of a thing. The signs -=, for example, would stand for 3/12 of something. A twelfth part of the foot is an "inch" (derived from uncia), and the twelfth part of a libra (Roman word for pound) would be an "ounce." From the 17th century we have, in Thomas Blount's Glossographia, "Uncial, of or belonging to an ounce or inch." As early as Smith's 1842 classical dictionary, we have, under Uncia, "The uncial system was adopted by the Greeks of Sicily."
However, beginning around 1700 the word took on a different meaning, at least in English, and had to do with "the large rounded forms (not joined to each other) characteristic of early Greek and Latin manuscripts; also (in looser use), of large size, capital." Where did this other meaning come from? Well, the Church Father Jerome (ca. 342-420), in the prologue to his Commentary on Job used the phrase unciales litterae, though some scholars suggest that the first word ought to have been inicialibes. However, when the first word is unciales, it would have been translated "inch-high" or "twelve to the line" letters, or something like this.
It fell to the founder of the modern science of paleography, the French Benedictine scholar Jean Mabillon (1632-1707) to use the term in its current (OED sense). His foundational work in paleography was De re diplomatica libri sex (1681). Ah, would that I had time to follow in the footsteps of Mabillon as he collected, organized and classified the a huge store of medieval manuscripts. Indeed, the 17th-18 century really was the period of classifications, where scholars of great ambition in the Western world sought to organize all knowledge in handbooks, encyclopedias and classificatory schemes. They must have thought of themselves as nearly godlike in their taxonomical skill, dividing and ordering things in imitation of the creator.
So, now you know why uncial refers to manuscripts with upper case, but not strictly capital, letters from the early Middle Ages. Oh, the difference between capital and uncial letters is that the former are "angled" or "square" (like those hammered into rocks in Latin inscriptions we all have seen), while the uncial letters are simply large, but are frequently curved.
I took so long on uncial because I need to make sure I distinguish it adequately from uncus, uncinate and unciform. These last three terms come from a different Latin word (uncus, meaning "hook"). Let's run through the terms in the Century which use this root. Something unciferous is something bearing a curved process or hook and is specifically applied to ovipostors with strongly curved tips, like certain grasshoppers. Unciform means "uncinate in form; hooked or crooked; hook-like." In older medical textbooks you will find a description and diagram of the uncinate or unciform bone. It is just below the wrist, on the distal (small finger) side, and right below the pisiform. A littled hooked or ridged bone (you can actually feel it on the outside of the "meat" of the fist) used to be called the unciform process of the unciform bone, but has more recently become known as the hook of the hamulus, or, as in this diagram, the "hamulus of the hamate."
Consider this picture my valedictory wave for this essay!
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long