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Minuscule vs. Miniscule - Spelling evolution

Submitted by Druss on Tue, 2012-05-22 03:30

Every now and then I find myself subconsciously typing miniscule when I should actually be typing minuscule. I know that the latter is the correct spelling. Nevertheless, the former is so widely used nowadays that, and a lot of sources back this, it has become the spelling of choice when it comes to non-literary (colloquial) usage. Seeing it used so widely and so often is impressed on my brain and I literally can't help myself spell it that way when I'm in .. auto mode. That said, it also does not help that the "incorrect" spelling employs the prefix mini which carries similar connotations to minuscule.

Minuscule arrived in English by way of French and Latin where it represents something rather small. The original word was a noun which, in typography, denoted type set in lower-case (while majuscule was the equivalent for capitals). Over time, the word has evolved to represent anything small with its usage shifting from that of a noun to an adjective.

Looking at the various dictionary entries on this issue:

  • Cambridge: An entry is provided for miniscule with a note stating that it is
    a common spelling of minuscule that is not correct
  • Chambers 21st Century: It does not have an entry for miniscule. However, it does find a mention under minuscule with an interesting note that the former will very likely take over eventually:

    ... and because the word is not often marked by a distinct pronunciation, it is sometimes written as miniscule, under the influence of the productive prefix mini-:

    She showed him a photograph album, with herself by a fjord in a miniscule bikini.

    However, this spelling is not yet widely accepted.

    RECOMMENDATION: use minuscule in more formal writing and print; be cautious about using miniscule, although this form is likely to win in the end.

  • Collins: ... does not have an entry for miniscule. It also does not mention it in the entry for minuscule as a spelling variant or even as an incorrect colloquial form. This is a rarity.
  • Longman: No entry for miniscule and the entry for minuscule is decidedly lacking in information.
  • Webster: Miniscule is listed as a variant of minuscule accompanied by the following note:

    The adjective minuscule is etymologically related to minus, but associations with mini- have produced the spelling variant miniscule. This variant dates to the end of the 19th century, and it now occurs commonly in published writing, but it continues to be widely regarded as an error.

  • Wiktionary: The entry for miniscule states that it is a common misspelling and an American colloquialisation of minuscule. It also notes what the OED states on this matter:

    The correct spelling is minuscule rather than miniscule. The latter is a common error, which has arisen by analogy with other words beginning with “mini”, where the meaning is similarly ‘very small’.

Wordnik also has entries for both words.

The Chambers Dictionary notes that miniscule is very likely to win in the end and this certainly appears to be the case going by the number of hits on Google. This is evident by looking at the Google Trends comparison of miniscule to minuscule. While at first glance it might appear that minuscule is still well ahead, this is not the case. The results are adversely affected by the inclusion of French and other foreign languages in the data set. This can be witnessed by looking at the Languages section below the graph. This should clearly show that while minuscule vastly outranks miniscule in French usage, it is a different story altogether in English where miniscule has the lead. Restricting the results to American usage in the last 12 months should provide a better picture.

Google Trends used to provide a lot more knobs to experiment with ... it's a pity that they've been removed.

I'll try and refine this article at a later date. Please leave a note if you find this interesting or if you can point me to additional resources!