Week thirteen: VERMEIL (probability 10887), by David Sutton

VERMEIL is a poetical word for VERMILION, a mercuric sulphide, also known as CINNABAR, which has long been the source of a bright scarlet pigment. 'Thy beauty's shield, heart-shap'd and vermeil dyed', says Keats in 'The Eve of St Agnes'. It has a confusing number of variants: VERMIL, VERMEILLE and the Spenserian VERMELL and VERMILY. All these words derive ultimately from the Latin vermiculus, meaning 'little worm', which has given us VERMICULE and VERMICELLI. And what, you may ask, has a bright red colour got to do with little worms? The answer is that vermiculus could also mean a little insect of the genus KERMES (the Romans didn't distinguish too closely between annelids and insects), from which a bright red dye could be prepared, much in the same way as COCHINEAL is prepared from the crushed bodies of the cochineal insect, and this name was then transferred to the pigment prepared from cinnabar.

The Romans knew vermilion as MINIUM (plural MINIUMS), and this has also given us MINIATE, to decorate a manuscript with RUBRICS, or directions in prayer-books, since these were traditionally red in colour (indeed, RUBRIC derives from the Latin ruber, red). MINIUM was used to colour the faces of triumphant generals in imitation of the vermilion visage of the image of Jupiter Capitolinus in the Temple on the Capitoline Hill.

In Victoria Finlay's fascinating book 'Buried Treasure', about the history of gems, one reads that a kind of acronymic necklace was popular in Victorian times as a symbol of remembrance, comprising in order gems whose initial letters spelt out F-O-R-E-V-E-R: fire opal, opal, ruby, emerald, vermeil beads, essonite and rubellite. I think it would be great if our female Scrabblers could start wearing necklaces composed of sapphire, carnelian, ruby, agate, beryl, bloodstone, lazuli and emerald...

'Thy beauty's shield, heart-shap'd and vermeil dyed', says Keats in 'The Eve of St Agnes'. VERMEIL is also used to describe a silver-gilt or gilt bronze effect, especially for a medal award between gold and silver.

Finally note that VERMEIL can also be a verb, to colour vermilion, giving VERMEILED or VERMEILLED, VERMEILING or VERMEILLING.


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