Not to be confused with manacle or manicure, this is a much rarer word that also derives from Latin manus for a hand, in this case from the diminutive manicula, a little hand, which Romans also used for a plough-handle.
It has popped up through a discussion about it in a book on typography by Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks (worth buying if you’re at all interested in the history of typography). A manicule is a hand with its first finger pointing, once used in the margins of manuscripts and books to draw the reader’s attention to passages of particular importance.
A hand-drawn manicule on a page from an early printed edition of Justinian’s Institutiones; dated 1485. (Photo: Penn Provenance Project.)
We often encounter it as a direction pointer in old-fashioned public signs, though these days we notice it most often as the vertical-pointing shape your computer’s cursor changes to when you pass it over a web link. Printers have given it a number of names, including fist and index. This last one is the official name, echoing the Latin word for a sign or pointer, as in index finger.
The history of manicule in English is a bit of a mystery. It isn’t recorded in the recent review of the letter M in the Oxford English Dictionary, nor is it in any other dictionary I’ve been able to consult. And I’ve found no example in print before 1996. However, William Sherman wrote in a detailed study of the sign in 2005 that he had been told it had become the standard term among scholars who study ancient manuscripts. I wonder if his informant actually had manicula in mind, either the Latin word or the identical Italian one; this has certainly been used in English-language works on manuscripts. Alteration of the final letter to turn it into an English equivalent seems to have happened very recently.
Search World Wide Words
Support this website!
Donate via PayPal. Select your currency from the list and click Donate.