bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

Hands off the manicule

Posted in Manuscripts, Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 24 November, 2010

Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands, said e.e. cummings. He could have said such manicules, since in its Latin root, maniculae, the word means precisely ‘small hands’ — the diminutive of manus. It has come to mean something more specific to those of us who grub around in the margins of books: it is the nota-symbol drawn, sometimes rapidly, sometimes elegantly, as a pointing hand, a fashion that lasted several hundred years. Bill Sherman has discussed manicules with customary verve and insight; he has helped us consider their possible meanings. Except they do not, officially, have an English name; the manicule has no meaning. It does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary.

I discovered this lacuna just now when I typed the term into the OED and was advised that the nearest English word is ‘manicure’. Few of the pointing hands I have seen require such care to their nails (if they have them at all). Bill Sherman similarly noticed in 2005, when entitling an article ‘Toward a History of the Manicule’ that the word – the concept he was championing – had no existence then. Five years on, and despite his work, it is still not recognised.

One wonders why this oversight: is it because it is rude to point? Is there a worry about touching the manicule because you don’t know where it’s been?

My immediate reaction was to call for a campaign, demonstrations with appropriately designed placards demanding dictionary space for the manicule — a truly Pythonesque occasion. But then it struck me that there is something of a badge of honour in being so underground that you have no meaning, something ironic that an image so well-defined can have no definition, and something fitting that a symbol from the margins is considered so marginal. The manicule is precisely beyond the text and, indeed, defines the text rather than being defined by it. So, what has the OED to offer to an extended forefinger that has travelled so widely? If a manicule was to appear, it should not dragooned into line alongside any quotidian term. Frankly, the manicule has no need of the OED. So, rather than campaigning to include it, let’s fight to keep it out of the dictionary. Anyone to join me? Put your manicule up.

And, lest I leave you without an image on which to feast, view a comely, if tiny, manicule, a maniculula if you will. It is by Pier Candido Decembrio, the translator of Plato’s Republic, in a manuscript he himself prepared for Humfrey, duke of Gloucester:

London: British Library, MS. Harl. 1705, fol. 41v.