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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Tuesday, September 18, 2018



I've been enjoying watching The Miniaturist on PBS. 

You might well think that "miniature" has something to do with "minimum" or "minute" (i.e. the "tiny" sense of "minute"). But you would be wrong.

The real story is much more surprising. The word comes from the Latin minium meaning "red lead", a bright red oxide of lead formerly used in artists' paints. In the Middle Ages, the scribes used  this pigment in their illuminated manuscripts,  especially for titles, headings, and initials. 

In Italian, a verb, miniare, was derived from minium,meaning "illustrate a manuscript". A miniatura was an illumination in a manuscript, not just in red, but in any colour. Since these illuminations were of necessity very small, this Italian word, and its English derivative "miniature", came to mean any small picture. Subsequently it came to apply to other small-sized versions of larger things: dogs, marshmallows, chocolates, golf, what have you.

And then it generated the shortened form "mini-".

The title of this TV series is a bit of an anachronism for 17th-century Amsterdam, since "miniaturist" did not enter English till the 19th century, and was not used of dollhouse makers till the 1940s.

Now, what about the pronunciation of those first five letters? 

MINN ya?

It was almost certainly "MINNY a" to start with, but in Britain this has been gradually reduced to "MINNa".

In North America, "MINNY a" still exists, alongside "MINNa".

It would seem that in Canada, "MINNY a" and "MINN a" are almost neck and neck, with slightly more people saying "MINNY a". Some respondents reported that they switch between the two, sometimes randomly, sometimes depending on what the miniature thing is.  Others felt they were influenced by knowing how it's pronounced in French. When we researched and edited the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we put "MINN a" first and "MINNY a" second, but I rather suspect the situation was a similar close-run race to my most recent survey.

In the US, the situation is similar, but with slightly more people opting for "MINN a". This surprises me somewhat as Merriam-Webster lists "MINNY a" first (and the PBS voiceover person calls the show "The MINNY a turist").

I say "MINNAchur". I remember in my youth making fun of the Kraft ads on TV touting their latest vile jellied salad recipe which invariably included "MINNY a chur" marshmallows and what sounded like "Kraft horrible dressings" (it was in fact "pourable dressings"). Fear not, I have outgrown making fun of other people's pronunciations, and I certainly did not make fun of our invaluable pronunciation informants. Still not a fan of jellied salad though.

What do you say?

About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.