• incunabulum •
in-kê-næb-yê-lêm • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun (irregular plural)
Meaning: 1. Books printed in the infancy of printing, particularly those printed before 1500. 2. (usually in the plural) The earliest stage of anything, as role of the vacuum tube among the incunabula of computing.
Notes: Today's Good Word has retained its Latin plural: incunabula. This word was arbitrarily assigned to books published before 1500 somewhere in Germany in the early 19th century. Since it is a Latin word, it works just as well in English—in fact, in any language. It is used today mostly by bibliopolists in the antiquarian book trade though, in the second sense, it is used more widely.
In Play: As you examine a potential friend's library this question may now come to mind: "Is this a genuine incunabulum or just a facsimile?" Of course, there is a plethora of occasions where the second meaning comes in handy: "Benjamin Franklin is a prominent figure among the incunabula of American history. (Remember to use the plural in these contexts.)
Word History: Today's Good Word was borrowed from Latin incunabulum, the singular of Latin incunabula "swaddling clothes, cradle". This word is made up of in- "in" + cunabula "small cradle, infancy". The ultimate Latin word underlying all these derivations is cunae "cradle". It goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root which also lurks behind cemetery. Cemetery comes to us ultimately from Greek koieterion "sleeping place", based on koima "to put to sleep". By the time it had passed through Latin and been handed down to French, it had become cimetière "graveyard", at which point English borrowed it and worked its magic on it. (Suzanne Russell has been a contributor of intriguing words like today's since the incunabula of alphaDictionary's Good Word series.)