Friday, 11 October 2013

A Scintillating Scintilla

Once upon a time, there was a Latin noun scintilla and it meant spark. We all know what a spark is: it's the tiny little point of light that flies out of fire or fusebox. And because sparks are so tiny we got the English word scintilla, meaning tiny little thing, which is usually used in phrases like not a scintilla of doubt.

But the Romans also made a verb of scintilla: scintillare, which meant to sparkle. And the past participle of scintillare was scintillatus. And because things that sparkle are bright and interesting and attract our attention, we got the verb scintillate.

So one word came from the size of a spark, and the other from its brightness.

But scintilla has one third child who's not nearly as obvious. As the Roman Empire fell and declined, people forgot how to spell properly and some people changed scintilla to stincilla. That's why the French ended up with a verb estenceler meaning to decorate something with lots of sparkly things. And so Medieval English got the verb stencellen meaning to decorate with bright colours. And that's why the pattern that you use to apply decorations is called a stencil.

Not a scintilla of scintillation.

Sorry for the lacunose blogging. The new book has now finally been sent to the printers. Of which much, much more soon.

And hence, of course, Banksy

1 comment:

  1. I thought the third child was going to be 'tinsel'... You certainly surprised me!