What does ‘carnelian’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: carnelian….

I have a pretty good vocabulary with a few gaping holes. I was a Liberal Arts student in school, favouring literature and history classes over anything relating to science. My academic preferences have cost me more than a few words, and I suspect carnelian is one of them.

Here is how Lisa Brennan-Jobs (daughter of Steve Jobs) used the word carnelian in her memoir, Small Fry.

My mother in a library, with long carved carnelian hair, stood smiling in front of shelves of red-and-gold encyclopedias.

Carnelian (also spelled cornelian) is a brownish-red mineral commonly used as a semi-precious gemstone. It is similar to sard, which is generally harder and darker. That said, the two names are often used interchangeably. Commonly found in Brazil, India, Russia and Germany, carnelian is coloured by impurities of iron oxide. The colour varies greatly, ranging from pale orange to an intense almost-black.

The woman in the photo at the top of this blog post could be said to have cornelian hair, making cornelian one of those words that is both a noun and an adjective.

The etymology of the word is late Middle English. It originates from the Old French corneline with the adjusted prefix car- relating to the Latin carocarn meaning ‘flesh’. It may also come from the Old French cornele meaning cherry.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on March 6/19.

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