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Saturday, 28 June 2014

The meaning of miniature

The first miniatures were created back in the days of hand-written books, when miniaturisation and illumination went together. Of course, these days, those illuminated manuscripts which have survived are given low levels of illumination, because that word has changed meaning.

When they were first illuminated, the manuscripts had light added to them, when the monks in the scriptorium used colour to make the manuscript more interesting and more beautiful.

If they were illuminated now, the manuscripts would slowly be damaged by the light, until they faded away, so illuminated manuscripts are never illuminated now. We keep them in the dark to preserve the illuminations in the original sense, but illumination is not the only word that has changed.

The word 'manuscript' has changed as well. Originally, it meant 'hand-written', but now an author's work, fresh off the laser printer hooked up to the computer, is also referred to as a manuscript, but back to our monks, scrivening away on vellum, and their occasional miniatures.

Sometimes, the monks might be making an almanac, featuring red letter days, special feast day that were indicated in red. In the Church of England, red letter days came to be those days on which the Book of Common Prayer includes a collect, an epistle and a gospel for that day — but by then, the Book of Common Prayer was printed, not written by hand.

The use of red for special matters was nothing new: to the Romans, an ordinance or law was called a rubric, because it was written with vermilion (rubrica), unlike Rome's praetorian edicts and rules of court. In England, the term 'rubric' came to mean those liturgical directions and titles printed in red, and we find Milton writing in Paradise Regained:
No date prefix'd
Directs me in the starry rubric set.
Once again, though, we have strayed into the era of printing. Back in the time before the printing press and movable type, the monks used a special pigment called minium to make the red letters of the rubrics. This word actually had two meanings: it could be vermilion, mercuric sulfide, or it could be red lead, an oxide of lead written Pb3O4 by the chemists. They also used minium to add small drawings to the manuscript.

So when a monk miniated a manuscript, he wrote on it or painted around its borders with minium, and the result was a miniature. Today, we think a miniature is just a small version of something, perhaps because it sounded like other words, including minor and minimum, but by 1716, painting 'in miniature' meant creating a very small painting, often on ivory or vellum, and by the time Napoleon was defeated, the term meant on a small scale — very much the meaning we would understand today.

You could also miniature something when you embellished it with miniature portraits, but sadly, the day of the miniator was closing, for once photography took off, a major part of the miniator's business went west.

Now people could pop into a studio, sit uncomfortably still for a few minutes, and then order as many prints as they wanted.

Oddly enough, there is another mini word with a link to lead. The Minié ball, a type of bullet which expanded in a rifle barrel to make a tighter fit, and named after a captain of that name in the French army in 1853. The bullet went faster as a result, and made a hole in the target which was far from miniature in size, though it would undoubtedly have been miniature in colour.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The caddy

I have been away (NOT playing golf, but messing with reptiles, swimming with hammerheads and stuff like that, as will be revealed in the weeks to come). Anyhow, service has been resumed with this piece from my bottom drawer.

The caddie or caddy, today, has one meaning only for most people, and that refers to the offsider of a golfer, the person who carries the clubs, and who, if the caddie is any good, provides local advice to the golfer.

It is a Scots word, brought into English when golf was given to the English, apparently as a revenge for Culloden. The English passed golf on to the Americans in revenge for certain events in the 1770s, and the Americans later used it as an object of retribution against the Japanese over certain events in December 1941 and thereafter, and the Japanese are still looking for somebody they can drop it on.

Along the way, even though a number of golfing terms travelled with the game, some of them lost their other contexts. The caddie was originally any kind of lowly servant, and the caddies of Scotland included errand-boys, odd-job men, and chairmen.

Of course, these chairmen were not the grand lords of the board, the rulers of the roost that chairmen are today: these were just the chaps who carried the sedan chairs when people wanted to get from one place to another without exertion, and without getting muddy or wet.

The caddie, in fact was just a Scots form of the English word that could be either a cadee or a cadet, and generally, this implied a young person, but became the name given to all sorts of servants. The original cadet was a younger son, and the word came through Provençal, where it was a capdet, with this in turn coming from capitello, a diminutive form of the Latin caput, a head. So a cadet was a minor head of the family, but then the term was corrupted and downgraded.

Further east, a cadi in Arabic-speaking countries was an important person, a civil judge, and further east still, the cadet turned up, either as a young trainee in the East India Company, or as a young man who enters the army without a commission to learn the arts of war.

Just a little bit further east, the speakers of English came upon an entirely different form of caddy, as is often indicated by the spelling. The Malays used the kati, usually described as a weight of one and a third English pounds, or as 625 grams, which does not sit well with the first definition, nor with the alternative translation of 1 lb, 5 oz, 2 dr. Still, whatever the equivalence may be, the kati was widely used in Asia, and commonly divided into 16 of a smaller unit, the tahil, and if opium was being sold, this unit was divided into 10 chi.

The English, of course, did not partake of opium themselves, or kept quiet about it if they did, but economics had forced them to deal in opium, to avoid a nasty balance of payments problem, because the English were absolutely besotted with tea.  They had it in the morning, they had it in the afternoon, they had it with meals, and it was costing England a small fortune, all of which was ending up in Chinese coffers, so the English started trading opium for tea.

In return, they courteously kept on buying tea by the boat load, rushing it back to England in clippers, the fastest and most beautiful sailing ships ever, where it would be sold in the little wooden boxes that it had been placed in, each holding a kati of tea.

And so we got the tea caddy, a small container which in Australia and England, usually was made of tinplate or thick crockery, held a bit more than a pound of tea, and usually featured some royal occasion or other that was deemed worth celebrating.

And as if to remind themselves of the origins of it all, in some unconscious way, the English lower classes still speak of "a cup of cha", where the Chinese name for tea is cha, and appropriately, we all call the crockery 'china'.

There is another sort of caddy that we hardly ever hear of any more: 'caddy' is also another name for a ghost or bugbear, but it would be hard to say quite why. It just is.