in-kê-næ-byê-lê • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, plural
Meaning: 1. The initial stages or earliest traces of anything. 2. Early printed books, especially those printed before 1500 when printing was in its infancy. Synonym: incunable(s).
Notes: Although today's word is generally treated as a pluralis tantum noun, one with no singular, when referring to one of the earliest books printed, incunabulum is occasionally used. More recently, however, the term incunable (plural incunables) has been used in the singular. I know what you are thinking: what do we call someone who collects only the earliest books printed? Well, he or she would be called an incunabulist.
In Play: Let us begin with an example of the original use of today's word: "Ernestine loves collecting books and her collection even contains a few incunabula." More interesting, as always, however, are the metaphoric uses of this word (notice the plural agreement): "The incunabula of the human species suggest that it started about 2 million years ago."
Word History: Today's Good Word is the Latin word incunabula, which means "swaddling-clothes" and comprises two components, in "in" + cunabula "cradle, infancy", the diminutive of cunae "cradle". The oldest form of this word that we can reconstruct is the speculative *koi-/kei- "to lie, bed", seen in Greek koiman "put to sleep". This stem died out in Modern English though it appeared in Old English hind "member of a household" and hide "measure of land for a household". Apparently there was a time when a household was measured by how many people slept under one roof. (Today we need to thank Sue Gillmore for not sleeping on the job and coming up with today's fascinating word for us.)
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