Each time I hear someone boast of having a treasured momento, I react with nearly as much violence as when I hear or read of something miniscule. These two “M” words—memento, meaning “souvenir” (or some other keepsake), and minuscule, meaning “very small”—are misspelled and mispronounced more often than not. Why?
In the case of the former, I suppose it’s because of confusion in generally muddled minds with the word momentous, meaning “of great importance.” The words, as you might expect, if you gave it any thought, come from two entirely different roots.
Memento is the imperative form of the Latin verb memenisse (“to remember”), and as a noun it referred originally to a prayer in the Roman Catholic Mass beginning “Memento, Domine, famulorum famularumque,” or “Remember, O Lord, your servants.” Later memento came to mean a “reminder”—especially of the fact that we are all going to die, in the phrase memento mori (“remember to die”). Nowadays, people probably would prefer their mementoes not to do that for them.
Momentous, on the other hand, is from the word moment, meaning “importance,” which is rooted in the Latini momentum (“movement”). An event of moment meant something (like a Presidential election or a Lady Gaga concert, say) with the power to move one with force or excitement.
As for minuscule, it derives from the Latin minusculus (“rather small”), a diminutive of minus (“less”), which, in turn, derives from minor (“smaller”). Originally minuscule was used to refer to a medieval style of writing and subsequently to lower-case letters.
The prefix mini-, seen in many words such as minimum, minicar, minibus, minicomputer, and miniskirt (but not in minuscule!), also comes ultimately from the Latin minor—but by a different route, through minimus, meaning “the least or smallest.”
To confuse matters even further, miniature, which now means “small replica,” comes from an entirely different root—miniare, which means to “paint with the color vermilion.” It referred originally to paintings colored red in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Such paintings were necessarily small, so miniature evolved to mean anything smallish.
Well, I trust you’ll be able to sleep nights now that we’ve settled that.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou has no trouble sleeping nights, or days, for that matter. He claims it’s because of his clear conscience; others insist he has just passed out from too much booze. You be the judge:
If you find in your mailbox a story
With goings-on ghastly and gory,
Dealing with death
And someone’s last breath—
Well, that’s a memento mori.
Thanks, but no thanks, I get quivery
Just thinking of that special delivery,
You tell the Grim Reaper
I won’t answer his beeper—
I prefer a memento vivere.