Minuscule vs. Miniscule

By Maeve Maddox

When a reader kindly pointed out that I’d misspelled minuscule in a post, my first reaction was puzzlement. I’d written about “a miniscule difference,” meaning “a tiny difference.” I spelled the word the way I pronounce it: min-i-SKYOOL.

On the other hand, the term minuscule is in my vocabulary. I know that Carolingian minuscule is a type of rounded script developed in the court of Charlemagne. When I learned the word in that context, I was taught to pronounce it mi-NUHS-kyool.

I was being what Charles Elster (The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations) would call a dimbulb:

[O]nly a dimbulb would intentionally write miniscule.

Note: Elster devotes more than two pages to a rant against miniscule and the many “apathetic and squiffy-eyed” dictionary editors who accept it as a variant spelling of minuscule.

The spelling miniscule appears as early as the 1880s on the Ngram Viewer, but doesn’t show a rise until the 1930s, peaking in 1980 and then descending.

The OED has a separate entry for miniscule (noun and adjective), and includes citations from the late 19th and early 20th century:

The miniscule is the prevailing character in the Latin manuscript of the ninth century. —American Encyclopedia of Printing, 1871.

The letters of the inscription are all miniscules, with the exception of the monogram.
Antiquary (a monthly antiquarian magazine published from 1880-1915 in London and New York), 1908.

The legend is in Roman capitals of a debased type, with a tendency to the miniscule form. —Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1874.

Each of the text letters already named has its own lower case or ‘miniscule’ letters. —John Southward, Modern Printing (a British publication), 1898.

I am not trying to make a case for the spelling miniscule. I’m just pointing out that it has been out there for many years. Judging by the word’s precipitate drop on the Ngram Viewer in the 1980s, it seems that people are getting the message that minuscule is the spelling to use in any context.

Although some dictionaries may be wishy-washy about the matter, my two style guides agree that minuscule is the only correct spelling:

The Chicago Manual of Style
minuscule. Something that is minuscule is “very small.” Probably because of the spelling of the modern word mini (and the prefix of the same spelling, which is recorded only from 1936), it is often misspelled miniscule (which is treated as a variant in some dictionaries).

The AP Style Book
minuscule Not miniscule.

Note: When I wrote an email asking that the spelling be changed in the post, the Google email application automatically changed miniscule to minuscule. The Word spell checker, on the other hand, permits it to pass unchallenged.

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4 Responses to “Minuscule vs. Miniscule”

  • Curtis Manges

    I was surprised at this and had to look it up in my ten-and-a-half-pound Webster’s. The mini- variant is considered incorrect; both pronunciations are given.

    In typography, there’s a contrasting term: majuscule, for capital letters.

    An easy mnemonic for the correct spelling is to break the word like so: minus-cule. Minus is less.

    Thanks, Maeve.

  • venqax

    It’s one of those words where “logic” of a sort leads you astray. I think “momento” instead of “memento” and “sacreligious” instead of “sacrilegious” are a similar type of error.

  • Raymond Bolton

    I wish people would become this militant regarding the misuse of further to mean more distant. Among its proper uses, further is a verb meaning “to promote” or “to enhance” as in to further a cause. It is also an adverb meaning “additionally” as in “Further, when posting to a blog, one should not ramble,” or an adjective meaning “additional,” e.g. without further ado. But if one persists in arguing it is interchangeable with farther, then you must accept that the sentence “How fur is it into town?” has ascended from patois into proper English… and it hasn’t. Fur, further, furthest? Don’t make me laugh!

  • Cygnifier

    Good post. Thanks, Maeve.
    Curtis, your “minus-cule” mnemonic is useful. While reading the article , I was trying to think of a mnemonic too — if I think of minuscule as a pal of minute (as in tiny, rather than as in 60 seconds), it helps.
    Raymond, given that further is a “comparative of far” and means, according to the OED, “at, to, or by a greater distance” (1) and “over a greater expanse of space or time; for a longer way”(2), I think the restriction of further in terms of pushing an agenda, to promote, or to enhance is a lost cause.

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