• carbuncle •
kahr-bêng-kêl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A semi-mythical gem from the East Indies formerly believed to be capable of shining in the dark. 2. Any large precious red or fiery stone, such as a ruby, garnet, or spinel. 3. A boil, canker, other lesion of the skin.
Notes: Here is a word we hear less often in the 21st century. We have two adjectives for this noun, carbuncular, which means "like a carbuncle", and carbuncly "having carbuncles". When this word was commonplace, it acquired two more, carbunculous and carbunculate, which are no longer in use.
In Play: We rarely hear today's word in spoken English; however, it is occasionally encountered in reading, especially in historical literature: "The king carried a gold scepter the head of which was encrusted with pearls and precious stones arranged around a shining carbuncle." It mostly refers to infectious boils: "Dr. Guillotin was said to have died in 1814 of a large carbuncle on his shoulder."
Word History: Today's Good Word was pirated from Old North French carbuncle (Old French charboncle) "carbuncle-stone, boil", inherited from Latin carbunculus "red gem, inflamed spot, little coal", derived from carbo, carbonis "coal". The Latin word was made from PIE ker- "heat, fire", source also of English hearth and German Herd "stove". The same word turned up in Greek as keramos "potter's clay", which English adopted and adapted as ceramic. In Lithuanian we see it in kurti "to light, kindle" and karštis "heat", Latvian karsēt "heat, cook". Russian metathesized it and came up with krasnyi "red".
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