Burnt Toast Editorial

The #NoBullshit Publishing Consultancy

Pen, pluma, feder: etymology of the tools of a writer’s trade by our guest writer, Marius Gabriel 

Pen, pluma, feder: etymology of the tools of a writer’s trade by our guest writer, Marius Gabriel 

How about a brief excursion into the etymology of the tools of the writer’s trade? The word “pen” is derived from the Latin penna, a feather – because, of course, for many centuries people wrote with quill pens, trimming and splitting the nibs with sharp little “pen knives”.

The German feder, Spanish and Italian pluma and French plume are all derived from the same etymological root. I’ve always found it an attractive idea that writing should be associated with wings, and that the same, proverbially light scrap of protein should bestow the power of flight on both birds and words. The plume should be ideally plucked from a nice fat goose, which could be paid for by exerting the feather, together with a little ink.

“Ink” itself has a very noble ancestry, being derived from encaustum, the purple liquid used by Roman emperors for signing. Ah, the power of the word! It’s related, of course, to “encaustic”, the technique of painting with melted, coloured wax, which produces vivid effects, but allows very few second thoughts. The artist has only a few moments before the wax cools, and so must get it right the first time – a lesson many writers might do well to learn, perhaps? 

An Abridged History of Writing Instruments, © G.D. Konstantine.

“Encaustum” is derived from Greek kaustikos, “burning”, because flame is needed to melt the wax; and the word is related to our “caustic”, meaning words or materials capable of burning, and also to “holocaust”, the burning of everything.

The great Holocaust in which twelve million human beings were consumed also began with a few words signed in ink.

Interestingly, the word “pencil” has a different derivation from “pen”, and comes from Latin “penis”, a tail. That this word also applies to the male sexual organ is one of those happy Freudian coincidences – or is it? Ay, thereby hangs a tale. It may be worth remembering that ‘author’ derives from the Latin verb augere, to make something grow, to originate, promote or increase.

These days, of course, pens and pencils have largely given way to keyboards. Although “keyboard” is a fairly recent coinage, dating to the early nineteenth century, the use of the word “key” to denote the striking lever of a musical instrument goes back to mediaeval times. The clavichord was a fifteenth century predecessor of the harpsichord and the piano, in which a string (chorda) was struck with a key (clavis).

This concept was transferred to typewriters and thence to the computers we now use. Once again, there is something beguiling about this association, the clicking of our keyboards translating into flowing music. It makes one wonder what the next tool of the writer’s trade will be?

© Marius Gabriel, 2021.

This post is by Marius Gabriel. He is the author of a number of historical novels, including The Ocean Liner and The Parisians, as well as the Redcliffe Sisters 2-part series, Take Me To Your Heart Again and Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye. 

His novel set in wartime Paris, The Designer, won the Romantic Novelists Association Prize for Historical Romance. Born in South Africa in 1954, he has lived and worked in many countries, with a recent three-year domicile in Egypt. He now lives in Lincolnshire and has three grown-up children. To view all of Marius’s books click here

© Marius Gabriel, 2019.




About the Author

Lala administrator

Tough old London bird washed up on the Dorset shore. PhD and Founder of #nobullshit publishing consultancy Burnt Toast Editorial. Very booky.

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