Definition: Any book created before 1501.  More loosely, it refers to very old books or artwork.  The singular form is incunabulum.

Pronunciation:  In-kew-nab-you-lah


Incunabula comes from the Latin word cunae for cradle, and before that from the Proto-Indo European root words –koina and –kei, meaning to lie, or bed or couch.  It gained its current meaning around 1861 when printers began using it to refer to the infancy, or cradle, of the book printing process.  The first person to use this word was Thomas DeQuincey, but the first person to apply it in the sense that we utilize it today was John Mason Neale, attributing the word to German, in a book entitled Notes Ecclesiological and Picturesque on Dalmatia, Croatia, Istria, Styria, with a Visit to Montenegro.

Why this word?

I have always been fascinated by old books.  I come from a family with a great love of words, books, and reading so I suppose it’s really no surprise.  Reading Geraldine Brooks’ book People of the Book helped me appreciate the stories that very old books can tell us, as it traces the path one book has taken through history, from the fifteenth century to the present.  The words on the pages were only the tip of the iceberg in learning from the book.  The materials used, minute traces of items in the binding, the choices made by the binder, all conveyed important information about the book, its creator, and the time period in which it was made.

How to use the word incunabula?

“I have appraised this incunabulum at a price that I believe is more than you can afford.” 

“The history contained quite literally within the pages of this incunabula will tell us not only the stories writ within but also much about the lives and materials available to the people in that time period.”


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Written by Kate Fulton

Kate Fulton has a bachelor’s degree in classics and psychology from the University of Massachusetts and is working on a library science degree from Simmons College. She has always been fascinated by words- their usage, spelling, and etymology. Kate may be one of the few people who enjoyed the verbal section of the SAT. Yes, she is a word geek. Currently she bores her husband and young daughter with her love of vocabulary.


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