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Every Word Tells a Story 9 - Ink, Indigo and Italics

Updated on June 18, 2017
Docmo profile image

Mohan is a family physician, film and TV aficionado, a keen bibliophile and an eclectic scribbler.

I yam what I yam!

In our journey through the alphabets we arrive at our ninth stop, the inevitable, indispensable and indefatigable ‘I’. One of the five vowels, 'i' is also the fifth most commonly used letters in the English language. ( Do you know what the most common letter used in English language is?)

Phonetically it can emulate a long diphthong /ai/ as in ‘night’, 'kite', 'might' and also a short vowel ‘i’ as in 'hit', 'bit' and ‘nit’.

In Greek alphabet it is represented by the smallest letter ‘iota’. In common parlance has come to mean ‘tiny’ or ‘negligible’ as in ‘ It doesn’t make an iota of a difference’.

How many 'I ' words can you spot in this picture?
How many 'I ' words can you spot in this picture?

"For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled"

Gospel of Matthew (5:18)

The Inside Story

The lowercase ‘i’ (and also the ‘j’) are distinguished by the dot on the top in English. This dot is known as a ‘tittle’.

As seen in the Gospel of Matthew 5:18, the phrase 'jot and tittle' means attending to all minor details and being thorough. This is the ancient equivalent of 'dotting all the 'i's and crossing all the 't's'!

The word ‘I’ as a pronoun comes from the Germanic root of ‘Ich’ which in turn has a long and ancient pedigree through the Sanskrit ‘aham’, the Greek and Latin ‘ego’. Freud coined the term ‘ego’ as the conscious part of the self ( as opposed to the id- the unconscious) from this concept.

What wondrous stories shall we mine from 'I' words? Although initially it looked like slim pickings due to the plethora of prefixes ( In-, Im-, Inter-, Intra-, intro- Iso- ) I found there are many other 'i' words that are a treasure trove of etymological entertainments.

There is murder and mayhem in march, geographical mishaps and directional confusions that have left a lasting legacy, incredible inventions and pioneering spirits. So pull up a chair, grab a cup of your favourite tipple and sit comfortably. For I've got tantalising tales to tell you. ( I come from a long stock of snake-oil salesmen, can't you tell!)

Assassination of Julius Caesar in the Theatre of Pompey on March the 15th ( Ides of March)
Assassination of Julius Caesar in the Theatre of Pompey on March the 15th ( Ides of March)


Just as we were talking about 'ego' as a sense of self worth, nothing could be more ego-stimulating than being named the 'Pater Patriae' ( Father of the Fatherland), Praefectus Morum ( Prefect of Morals) and 'Dictator Perpetuo' ( Dictator in Perpetuity). Who, you ask me, was the recipient of such wonderful accolades. It was none other than Julius Caesar himself.

Gaius Julius Caesar enjoyed enormous popularity with the masses. A Roman General and statesman, his frequent conquests and expansionist views were favoured by the citizens of the Roman Republic. He was popular for conquering Gaul and expanding the Roman territories all the way west to the English Channel and eventually to that of Rhine and Britain. With his massive military stature and power, Caesar eventually took control of the troubled Senate after a Civil war. His susequent reforms of the Roman society and Government also extended to the Roman Calendar

The Ides of a month refers to the middle of the month from the Latin word 'Idus'. In the Roman Calendar of the time, the middle of the month was the 15th for March, May,July and October and the 13th for the other months.

Caesars astronomic rise to power and subsequent popularity caused consternation to the rest of the senate who feared that the Republic was being eclipsed by the radiance of one man. The sixty senators, led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus plotted one of the most famous assassinations in history.

Julius Caesar ( July 100 BC - March 44 BC)
Julius Caesar ( July 100 BC - March 44 BC)
'Beware of the Ides of March'
'Beware of the Ides of March'

Are You Superstitious?

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According to Plutarch ( and borrowed by William Shakespeare) Julius Caesar was warned by a series of portents when he was invited to go to meet the Senate at the Theatre of Pompey - dizzy spells and a sense of unease, his wife's dreams, inclement weather, Earth tremors and then, the ultimate warning by a Soothsayer that he is likely to be harmed by the Ides of March.

Ignoring the warnings ( and goaded by Brutus into attending) Caesar allegedly met the Soothsayer on the way to his doom and jested "The Ides of March have come", smirking that he was doing fine.

To which the Soothsayer said, "Ay, Caesar, but not gone" ( One- nil to the soothsayer!)

Sixty assassins and twenty three stab wounds later ( Yes this was one of the early recorded post-mortems in history) , I am sure Caesar wished he had listened.

Shakespeare, popularised this interaction in the eponymous play as 'Beware of the Ides of March!'

Despite his death, Caesar had already paved the way for the rise of the Roman Empire from the ashes of the Republic. He had named his grand nephew Gaius Octavian as his heir and had bestowed him both with the Caesar name and with his enormous wealth. After a series of Civil wars, Octavian became the first 'proper' Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus.

Therein endeth the history lesson.

Rock on!
Rock on!


Anyone who remembers a little bit of geology from schooldays ( or am I just being a sad geek) will know that there are three main categories of rocks: Igneous, Sedimetary and Metamorphic.

Sedimentary rocks are caused by compaction of sediments by the river beds and sea : Limestone and sandstone. Metamorphic rocks are caused by high pressure usually found near volcanoes and fault lines : jade, slate etc.

Igneous rocks come in the form of molten lava from the centre of the earth. They erupt through volcanoes and then cool down to rock form. Granite, Basalt and obsidian are examples.

The word igneous means fire or fiery. It shares the same root in words such as Ignite ( to set fire) and Ignition. The root 'igni' has its origins in the ancient Sanskrit root 'Agni'

Agni, incidentally is the Hindu God of fire.

Agni- The Hindu God of fire
Agni- The Hindu God of fire

Hymn to Agni in Rigveda

I IMPLORE Agni, the chief priest, the divine minister of the sacrifice, the Hotri priest, the best giver of wealth.
Agni, worthy to be implored by former poets and by new, may he bring the gods hither!
Through Agni man gained wealth, satisfying even day by day, glorious wealth of vigorous kindred.
Agni, the offering which thou encirclest on all sides, that alone goes to the gods.
Agni, the Hotri priest, the wise counsellor, the truthful, the most glorious, may he, the God, come with the gods!

For the Hindus, Agni is one of the most important deities along with Varuna ( Rain God), Indra ( God of Thunder) and Vayu ( God of Air). This illustrates the evolution of theology from forces of nature that humans feared.

Agni is the ritual God of purification and sacrifice. Most Hindu ceremonies involve fire. The rituals originate from the ancient Rigveda ( composed as far back as 1700 to 1100 BC). Agnideva is invoked in more of the hymns within Rigveda than any other deity. In fact, he is the first word of the first hymn.

The pictorial depiction of Agni varies, but mostly he is described as being red with two faces: representing the constructive and destructive aspects of fire. He also has seven arms or seven rays of light emanating from his body. He has three legs and rides a ram. Many Hindu Gods are depicted as riding different animals, which in Sanskrit are known as 'Vahanas' or vehicles.

Agni is also said to have three sons: Pavaka who represents the electric fire of lightning, Pavamana who represent the fire that emanates from friction and Suchi who represents the solar fire.

As a sacrifical fire, Agni is treated as the messenger to the Gods, the conduit to cosmic glory.

Traditional Components of Ink

  • A Colorant ( Pigment, dye etc.)
  • A Binder ( something that binds the colorant to the carrier)
  • A Carrier ( that controls the flow and thickness)
  • Additives ( usually to preserve the color over time)

Encaustic painting of the Virgin Mary
Encaustic painting of the Virgin Mary


Ink is the liquid or paste that is used to color a surface. It has been in use for centuries. The earliest examples come from the Far East. The Chinese have been making ink using plant and animal dyes since 18th century BC.

The famous India Ink ( locally known as masi) was made from pitch, soot, burnt bones and other ingredients dates back to the 4th century BC. Many Indian scriptures have been written down using a 'needle pen' and ink and have stood the test of time.

The Western Scribes made ink using Ferrous Iron salts ( usually sulphate) and tannin from Gall nuts. This writing in parchment would have originally been bright bluish black and over time fades into the reddish brown rust colour of the iron salt.

Since the advent of printing,the chemistry and technology of Ink has been steadily advancing using modern scientifc techniques. It is a multibillion dollar industry.

The word 'Ink' is said to originate from older habits of using colored wax to incribe a surface or produce paintings by the Greeks and Egyptians. Colored pigments were added to beeswax and then blended to create unique painting and inscribing on wood and other surfaces. The wax was usually to be melted on heat by branding with a hot iron or fire the Greek term 'Encaustum' was used. 'Caustic' meant to burn.

When the newer methods of inscribing using pigments arrived, the term 'encaustum' shrunk to 'enque' and eventually to 'Ink'.

Encaustic painting has been enjoying a resurgence in the 20th century with many contemporary artists using this medium of expression.

Antique map of  India and East Indies
Antique map of India and East Indies

India and the Indies

Old Map of West Indies
Old Map of West Indies

What Columbus didn't realize, as with the rest of the civilized world of that time, was that there was a whole 'New World' waiting to be discovered that lay westwards between Europe and his dream of Eastern riches.


For the explorers in the middle ages, the sea route to the East was treacherous but worthy. The East held much commercial treasures that carried huge value in the western market.

The land of the Hindus, the land that lay to the east of the Indus river has been called India since ancient times. The Indian empire did include the far eastern territories such as Burma, Thailand and Indoensia as well as all the spice islands that came to be known as the East Indies.

The Dutch and British East India companies flourished with this trade in untold riches. Pepper, Cardamom, Nutmeg, Pearls, Gold, Ivory, Silk, Jade - the list could go on.

While one can understand the land east of India and the islands thereof being called the East Indies, it is a curious nomenclature that the Caribbean islands have been called the 'West Indies' and the Native Americans 'The Indians'.

This bit of geographic and anthropological confusion is attributed to that pioneering Genoese explorer, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus reckoned that the world being round, one should be able to circumnavigate westwards to reach India and the spice islands, and gambled on the possibility that this could be a better sailing prospect that going around the southern Tip of Africa ( a treacherous prospect for Sailors as it came to be known as 'Cape of Good Hope' if you did make it around!)

What Columbus didn't realize, as with the rest of the civilized world of that time, was that there was a whole 'New World' waiting to be discovered that lay westwards between Europe and his dream of Eastern riches.

So understandably when he landed in the Americas and the Caribes - he named the natives 'Indians' and thought he had landed in the 'Indies'.

When they realized their fortunate folly, the islands were renamed 'West Indies' to distinguish from those of the east.

So in case you were wondering why the native Americans came to be called 'Indians' it was all a bit of Geographic confusion and the sheer surprise of a 'New World' that wasn't mapped by the known world of that time.

Indigo Soul
Indigo Soul | Source
Sir Isaac Newton & Optics
Sir Isaac Newton & Optics
The Spectrum: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet
The Spectrum: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet


Talking about India and the Indies, there is a shade of color that owes its name to the same source. Indigo is the name given to the shade of blue that is unique to the color of dyes that originated in ancient India. The blue color was derived from the plant species Indigofera Tinctoria. ( This was also the color of the Woad plant ( Isatis Tinctoria) in Europe and has been a source of blue dye in Europe too, but not on the commercial scale as Indians.Ancient Indians were well versed in extracting this dye and even traded in this with the Greco-Romans. This wonderful blue dye and the fabrics dyed in this fashion were popualr with the Greeks and Romans.

So much so the word for any dye was Indikon ( Greek) and Indicum (Roman).

In the 13th century this color enjoyed a renaissance due to the trade between Europe and India. The color name was in use since then.

The discovery of the visible spectrum by Sir Isaac Newton brought the color Indigo further fame. Until then the spectral colors were just the basic six: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Violet. It was Newton who introduced the seventh color, Indigo , between Violet and Blue.

I think Newton felt seven was a more auspicious number for the spectrum and it also matched the musical scale.

Structure of Pancreas
Structure of Pancreas


By the way, Did you know why Insulin is called that?

The endocrine hormone that helps to regulate our sugar levels , does so to help our carbohydrate and fat metabolism. A medical student in Berlin, called Paul Langerhans, first identified a clump of cells that have not been previously described , while studying the human pancreas. These cells were appropriately names ' Islets of Langerhans' as they looked like little islands in the sea of pancreatic tissue.

It was soon figured out that these were the cells that produced the carbohydrate regulatory hormone in humans. As the Latin name for an island is 'Insula' the hormone was appropriately named as 'Insulin' as it originated from Langerhan's island of cells.

Insulin was first sequenced by by British scientist Frederick Sanger in 1951. He won the Nobel prize for Chemistry for his work ( he won another for determining the amino acid sequence of RNA ( one of the few double Nobel Laureatres!) His work led to the ability to synthesize Insulin for treatment of Diabetes as previously used insulin were animal extracts.


The publishing industry has embraced electronic technology well and truly. While the touch and feel of a good book still remains attractive to the bibliophile in me, I also like the convenience and portability of an e-book.

The ebook revolution is soaring and the convenience of carrying all your books inside a little tablet in enticing. This may feel like a new wave. However, something similar happened way back in the 16th century when another revolution happened. There were many who condemned this move and felt it cheapened books and took the glory out of what was sacrosanct.

But one man had a vision to revolutionize the publishing industry.

The man was Aldus Pius Manutius. The place where the exciting technological revolution happened was none other than Venice.

a Pre -Aldus  book with old fashioned typefaces
a Pre -Aldus book with old fashioned typefaces
Aldus Pius Manutius ( 1449- 1515)
Aldus Pius Manutius ( 1449- 1515)

Aldus Manutius had a scholarly life. He studied Greek and Latin and came to be a tutor for rich Italian families of that time. He was passionate about the classics. Printed books of the time were large, ponderous tomes. Their size was big and bindings heavy . They were printed in type that very much imitated the written calligraphic style of the monks who created illuminated manuscripts. They were designed to be read at a table and couldn't be carried around without straining ones shoulders.

Tutoring rich Italian princes of the time brought in funds that allowed Aldus to set up his own printing press. But Aldus had higher ambitions and vision. He wanted to publish books that were accessible and portable. He set up his own publishing company and started to publish the Greek classics he loved in a format that was groundbreaking.

The books were produced in octavo format. This meant they were small, and easy to be carried around in a Gentleman's pocket. He adapted the size and refined the type. The print was easily readable. Aldus worked with an illustrious punchcuttter of the time, one Francisco Griffo. The latter produced a slanted, cursive style of lettering which became the first 'italic' type face.

The name 'italics' is given due to its origin in Italy under Aldus' visionary ambitions. He went on to produce not only some of the classics but many contemporary books and brought the publishing industry well and truly into a new era. He built on existing conventions and was not afraid to modernise.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
An 16th century Aldus Manutius publication- note the clarity of the typeface and the size of the bookOne of his popular publications: Dante's InfernoOne of his popular publications: Dante's Inferno
An 16th century Aldus Manutius publication- note the clarity of the typeface and the size of the book
An 16th century Aldus Manutius publication- note the clarity of the typeface and the size of the book
One of his popular publications: Dante's Inferno
One of his popular publications: Dante's Inferno
One of his popular publications: Dante's Inferno
One of his popular publications: Dante's Inferno

"Aldus, making haste slowly, has acquired as much gold as he has reputation, and richly deserves both."

'Adagia' - Erasmus.

In many ways, Aldus was the Steve Jobs of his time.

Portability, higher resolution, accessibility, affordability and mass marketing were his key ambitions. His editions still remain highly collectible and have stood the test of time. Aldus Manutius created unique branding for his book by adapting the famous Roman adage and sign - it was an anchor and a dolphin insignia that was widely copied since due to his enormous success ( Apple anyone?) The phrase' Festina Lente' was his motto.

'Make haste slowly'. Although an oxymoron, it is meant to be complimentary of his rise to fame and riches. Erasmus, whose works Aldus published, quoted this in his book Adagia.

So lets all make haste, slowly, dear reader.

I will meet you again at jubilantly, justifiably at 'J'.

And if you feel brave, take the 'unusual' I words Quiz. c'mon


© Mohan Kumar 2012

Insignia adapted by Aldus- 'Make haste slowly'
Insignia adapted by Aldus- 'Make haste slowly'

An unusual 'I' words Quiz

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© 2012 Mohan Kumar


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    • Amy Becherer profile image

      Amy Becherer 

      6 years ago from St. Louis, MO


    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      Thank you my indubitable friend. I know you will like this 'I' hub and the quiz is bound to challenge us all as they are some very touch words! as for portents and omens I use those terms synonymously here to indicate an external event that signifies a forthcoming disaster rather than the 'sixth sense' which could actually be advanced processing still not grasped by traditional senses.

      I await the apple. Is it the fruit from the forbidden tree? ( of wisdom, of course;-)

    • Amy Becherer profile image

      Amy Becherer 

      6 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Now, after taking the test, I am irate and I will ignore the implicating inference that intellectually, I am an imbecile. Interesting, intellectual, imaginative, indefatigable ideas incomparably identified and inked, Docmo!

      I was intrigued by the "voting" question regarding superstition. I could not answer it other than I do not believe in "portents", but I would classify "omens" as part of intuitive thinking and do believe those with well-developed observative abilities, such as illustrated on the program "Lie to Me", can sense what is present, but others miss. The semantics of the question made it impossible for me to answer. Hitting all the buttons! Once again, Mohan, your abilities as a teacher shine. I'm bringing the biggest apple I can find to class for my favorite teacher, you.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      Vellur- Thank you very much.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      GLoshei- thank you so much. That picture was something I got from another free picture resource so I cannot claim credit for it! Glad you enjoyed this one.

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      tmbridgeland- thank you for the visit!

      onlooker- much appreciated!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      Everytime I write one of these I know you'll be here drbj and I know you always show appreciation and enjoyment - makes all the hard work so much worthwhile! thank you!

    • Docmo profile imageAUTHOR

      Mohan Kumar 

      6 years ago from UK

      Will Starr- thank you for that vote of confidence!

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      6 years ago from Dubai

      Interesting and informative. Very well written and presented. Enjoyed reading and got to know a lot. the pictures were great. You have put a lot of effort into this hub - great hub. Voted up, shared and bookmarked.

    • Gloshei profile image


      6 years ago from France

      Wow Docmo this took some writing it is brilliant I will have to bookmark it and go through it again just incase I missed something.

      the information is great and told me a lot I didn't know.

      I made it 43 words in that picture? how did you do that it was good.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Insightful information you've gathered here. So much to know and learn. I think I might be a little smarter now. I love how you've connected different subject matters into a whole. Thank you.

    • tmbridgeland profile image


      6 years ago from Small Town, Illinois

      This was fun. Thanks.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      6 years ago from south Florida

      I enjoyed reading every single word, Docmo, of this brilliant 'i' exposition. Your alphabetic excursions are delightful both to read and recall. Your indefatigable research compels the reader to want more. That, BTW, is one of my favorite 'i' words. Thank you for this outstanding vocabulary lesson. Voted way Up!

      To answer your question in the first paragraph, I believe the letter 'e' is the most widely used in the English language.

    • WillStarr profile image


      6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      This is why I never miss a Docmo!


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