"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Monday, 17 November 2008


Calepin was formerly a word for a dictionary, especially a polyglot one.

I know the word Le Calepin (pronounced cal-pain – as in Calcutta and Paint) as meaning a notebook. So, how come the French word for a notebook has ended up as an English word for a dictionary? The answer is that there is no connection – it is purely coincidental.

Ambrosio Calepino (1436-1511), of Calepio, in Italy, was the author of an eleven-language dictionary in 1502. As a result "my Calepin," like my Euclid or my Johnson became a common noun from a proper name.

"Whom do you prefer
For the best linguist? And I seelily
Said that I thought Calepine's Dictionary."

John Donne: Fourth Satire 1597

(Seelily, by the way, means in a silly manner – but that’s perhaps a word for another day...).

Meanwhile, the French word is best summed up on Heather Tomlinson’s Live Journal –
“French notebooks come in many delicious shapes and styles. A "calepin" is the kind you tuck in your coat pocket to keep track of metro stops, cafe addresses, your friends' shoe sizes, movies you've been meaning to rent, the dimensions of the corner wall where you hope to cram another bookcase, rose names from the Jardin des Plantes, shopping lists, bits of overheard conversation, book titles people recommend, and whatever odd things you notice on the streets of Paris (or wherever you happen to be). “

I defy anyone to better that description!

No comments:

Post a Comment