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Something that is miniature is small.
Often a miniature is something that’s a tiny replica of something else that is normally bigger.
It only makes sense that this word miniature would derive from the Latin word minimum, meaning “the smallest.”
It only makes sense, but it’s wrong.
Miniature is one of those strange words that has an etymology that defies logic. The actual truth is that before things that were tiny were called miniature, a certain kind of small portrait was called a miniature.
Before that, the art of illuminating those beautiful letters and figures in hand reproduced ancient books was called miniaire in Italian.
This miniaire art was in turn named for the red color that was especially popular for use in producing this art.
The red color was usually produced by use of a red kind of lead and it was the Latin name of this red lead that gave the color its name because the lead was called minium.
Thus etymologically, miniature and minimum actually don’t even have a small relationship with each other.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.