A few obscure words I’ve come across recently, with unexpected meanings or etymologies (cited here from the OED):
adversaria ‘A commonplace-book, a place in which to note things as they occur; collections of miscellaneous remarks or observations; also commentaries or notes on a text or writing’: Latin adversaria (sc. scripta) things written on the side fronting us (i.e. on one side of the paper), notes, a commonplace book; f. adversus (eg, WHITTOCK Compl. Bk. Trades 482 We never spent an hour more at our repose, than in silent attention to the political adversaria of this benevolent man).

cudbear ‘A purple or violet powder, used for dyeing, prepared from various species of lichens, esp. Lecanora tartarea; the lichen Lecanora tartarea‘: A name devised from his own Christian name by Dr. Cuthbert Gordon (who obtained a patent for this powder). Thanks to Monica Jainschigg for this word!
collimatea. To place or adjust (a telescope) so that the line of sight is in the required position; to place (two telescopes, lenses, etc.) so that their optical axes are in the same line. b. To make parallel, as a lens, the rays of light passing through it.’ From ‘collimare’, an erroneous reading, found in some edd. of Cicero, of L. collineare, f. col-, com- together + linea line, lineare to bring into a straight line. Collimare long passed as a genuine word, and was adopted by some astronomers who wrote in Latin (e.g. Kepler Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena, Frankfort 1604, p. 211; Littré) and thence passed into the mod. langs. The proper word would be collineate.
And, not exactly a matter of lexicography but following nicely from the last:
When (in the Summa, II. ii. 49) Aquinas says of memory that “oportet ut homo sollicitudinem apponat et affectum adhibeat ad ea quae vult memorari” (a man should apply solicitude and affection to the things he wants to remember), he is apparently misremembering or misreading the wording of the Ad Herennium, a classical (first century BC) text then wrongly thought to be by Cicero, which says that the imaginary places chosen for use in memory exercises should be in deserted regions because “solitudo conservat integras simulacrorum figuras” (solitude keeps their outline sharp). According to Frances Yates in The Art of Memory, Aquinas mistook “solitudo” for “sollicitudo,” “introducing a devotional atmosphere which is entirely absent from the classical memory rule.” Ah, the unpredictable consequences of error!


  1. Right now I’m reading Tristram Shandy. Over and over again the OED cites this book as the first, last, or only use of a certain word, often enough easily intelligible but slightly ludicrous Latin coinages.

  2. “Solitude keeps their outlines sharp” is setting off memory bells for me — did Borges use this phrase as the basis for one of his Fictions? The sentiment is eminently Borgesian.

  3. Hmm, I suppose the Ad Herennium quote may have something to do with Cicero’s habit of likening his orations to physical spaces and mentally storing different parts of the speech in different rooms of, say, an imaginary house. Or does that come from Ad H. too?
    Anyway, that verb collimare is pretty funny considering the possible meanings for it out of context. I mean, lima is a file (the tool, e.g. for fingernails) hense limare to file… but collimare would mean, what, file together? Then of course there’s limare “to fling mud,” (from limus “mud”), which might make mores sense with the con- prefix.

  4. Justin: The history of that idea of imagining a physical structure and placing images within it to aid the memory is exactly what Yates’s book is all about (and I should have linked to the UChic page on it rather than Amazon). It’s complicated, but basically it has three classic sources (that have survived, unlike the earlier Greek ones): Cicero’s De oratore, the anonymous Ad Herennium (which was thought in medieval times to be by Cicero and known as “the Second Rhetoric of Tullius”), and Quintilian’s Institutio oratoria. To greatly oversimplify, the ancient world used this “artificial memory” for speeches, the medieval world for sermons and visions of heaven and hell (Yates speculates that the Divine Comedy may be, among other things, the greatest literary example of a memory theater), and the Renaissance for magic (Giordano Bruno putting Cicero together with Ramon Llull).
    Jeremy: If you find it in Borges, do let me know!

  5. Hmph — well I think I have been misled. But here, qua booby prize, are two interesting and at least tangientially related things: “La Ficcion Literaria” by Cesare Segre, and Projects by Hisham M. Bizri. These Rhetorica ad Herennium seem pretty interesting.

  6. S/B “at most tangientially related”

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